Ars longa, vita brevis, goes the old Roman saying, and it remains true today. While decades and centuries come and go, art endures. The tumult of prerevolutionary Russia is by now a dim memory, but Chekhov's plays remain to recall the era. So it is with the plays of Jon Robin Baitz, an expatriate South African whose tales of and about New York City at the turn of the 21st Century may linger long after that just-passed era turns into a chapter of history. His plays are filled with educated, anxiety-ridden professionals aware of their failings but unsure of what to do about them. Like Chekhov's characters, Baitz's people seem mired in indecision and self-doubt, maintaining façades of urbanity that mask raw passions -- desire and fear foremost. This pattern continues in Baitz's Ten Unknowns, now in its Florida premiere at GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel. Set in a small Mexican village in 1992, the play serves up some interesting, flawed characters and witty conversation while posing a number of ethical dilemmas. Although those seeking dramatic action may come away disappointed, Joseph Adler's evocative production makes for an evening of thoughtful, insightful theater.

The story line is simple, perhaps overly so. Trevor Fabricant, a nervous New York art dealer, has stumbled on a poster of a 1949 art show featuring "Ten Unknowns," up-and-coming artists. One of these was one Malcolm Raphelson, now an aging painter of landscapes and the human figure whose career ended abruptly with the onset of Abstract Expressionism. Trevor manages to find Raphelson, who left the country for Mexico in the early 1960s, living there in obscurity ever since. Hoping to prod Raphelson to create new works for a retrospective exhibition in New York, Trevor sends his ex-lover, Judd Sturgess, an aspiring but frustrated young artist, to be Raphelson's assistant. Meanwhile Raphelson takes up with Julia Bryant, a Berkeley-trained biologist who is studying the extinction of a subspecies of frogs in the area.

When Trevor arrives at the artist's colorful, shambling studio, he finds Raphelson strangely ambivalent to Trevor's efforts to revive his career. Julia encourages Raphelson to work with Trevor but then discovers a strange psychological war under way between the artist and his assistant and a long-buried secret that is tormenting them both. The story, which offers an intriguing insider look at the modern art scene, unfolds in a series of pointed, brilliant conversations. Ideas crackle and spark in Ten Unknowns, as the subject matter leaps from media manipulation of fame to the nature of authenticity to the proper ethical response to eco-disaster. The conversations barrel along, referencing Hemingway, Dante, Diego Rivera, J.M.W. Turner, and New York-centric minutiae. If you can keep up with this high-flying talk, you'll have a grand time, but like his characters, Baitz isn't too keen on letting anyone else in on the details. You either know where and what NoHo is or you don't. Still Baitz's dialogue is peppered with sharp quips and epigrams. When Trevor wants Raphelson's new painting to be large enough to make an impact on a gallery wall, Judd accuses him of being "a size queen." Gruff, ursine Raphelson growls about the new popularity of his once-sleepy village, now besieged by "bus tours, traveling pederasts, and Texans." All of this makes for thoughtful, often dryly funny writing, but it doesn't translate into gripping theater. Like Chekhov, Baitz is playing on the fringes of human experience, not portraying its essential struggles. Several significant plot points are discussed after the fact, and often, again as with Chekhov, over food and drink. Conversation is king in Ten Unknowns, and if you like that sort of thing, you'll be pleased. If not, well ...

As is the norm with GableStage, Adler's direction is clear and effective, balancing the colorful, romantic feel of the Mexican setting with a darker sensibility. Tim Connelly's studio set, with vibrant, saturated Mexican colors and huge ceiling beams, and Jeff Quinn's moody lighting ably abet the production's mood. The cast is solid if uneven. As Raphelson, Dennis Carrig brings a veteran performer's ease and a striking, silvery look that befits the role. What's missing, though, is a certain charisma that might explain why all the other characters are willing to subjugate themselves to him. The text doesn't offer any demonstration of this power -- no scene or sequence where Raphelson could wow the audience. Without star power, the other characters' actions make less sense. Adler and Carrig set up Raphelson as an artist without a mask -- he is who he is. This Raphelson isn't fighting to keep up appearances, so the production lacks a moment of unmasking -- when all pretenses are stripped away.

Unmasking is also the key to the role of Judd and, in this, Nicholas Richberg does well as the insecure, sneering assistant, ever ready with a quip. Richberg's Judd starts off as a smug loner but later is revealed to be a tormented, conflicted soul, caught up in a codependent nightmare, an unsettling descent that Richberg tracks nicely. Deborah L. Sherman does well as Julia, the brainy chatterbox, but she has to pull extra weight with the weakest-written role in the play -- some extended character confessions seem to leap out of nowhere. It's in the role of Trevor that Baitz finds his stride and perhaps his alter ego. Trevor is an insecure expatriate caught up in the New York art scene, walking a tightrope between high-society éclat and financial disaster. Heath Kelts is superb in the role, delivering a complex palette of primary and secondary colors. In one memorable sequence, ex-lover Judd makes a joking suggestion about quickie sex to Trevor while in the presence of the other characters. The series of emotional responses Trevor goes through -- from surprise to doubt to glee to embarrassment -- is priceless.

Baitz always has a flair for character, but he has a real lock on Trevor, who like Baitz is marginalized by his sexuality and his ethnic and national identities -- the ultimate expatriate. He continues to depict an uprooted, restless sensibility -- the obsession with public image, the lonely search for emotional connection, the thirst for authenticity. Ten Unknowns isn't gripping theater, but it's elegant and unpatronizing, and Gable-Stage's decision to produce it is in itself something of an affirmation. Not so long ago, Adler's company was one of the few voices for provocative, challenging theater in South Florida, when the common wisdom was that only rehashed musicals and revues would work here. Now that more companies have followed that lead, a local audience of literate, demanding playgoers appears to be gaining momentum.

Sheathed in a custom-tailored gray suit and sporting expensively barbered silver hair, Tom Cruise looks like an older, harder version of the self-absorbed L.A. sharpie he played sixteen years ago in Rain Man. But in Collateral, a frenetic Michael Mann thriller that runs up a Baghdad-level body count, Cruise's character gets scarcely a whiff of the old redemption. No tragically damaged older brother materializes to bring him to his senses; for that matter, he must also get through the proceedings without benefit of a samurai sword, a racecar, or a Navy fighter jet. Truth be told, Cruise has almost nothing going for him this time around in the way of props, and even less than usual in the way of character.

Here he is called Vincent (no last name required), and we are asked to believe that he's the world's most ruthless contract killer, hired by a major drug cartel to murder five Angelenos in one night (in five different locations, no less), and dead set on getting the job done without so much as wrinkling a lapel. Casting Tom Cruise as a sociopathic hit man is like asking sweet Hilary Duff to play a junkie streetwalker, but who are we to raise questions in the corridors of Hollywood power? One of the world's most bankable movie heroes evidently wanted to try villainy on for size, and he got his way. Little matter that his new suit is a much better fit.

Mann, who created Miami Vice and Crime Story for TV, is one of the great action stylists, of course. He's the guy who first brought Hannibal Lecter vividly to the big screen (in 1986's Manhunter), and thousands of Manniacs can still quote entire passages, visual and verbal, from his sublimely nasty Chicago crime movie, Thief. But Mann's tough-guy stuff (remember Heat, with Pacino and De Niro knocking heads?) also tends to flirt with Deep Meaning, and that's not always a good thing once the gunfire starts. Thief was gritty and pitch-perfect, but when antihero James Caan started going on about the emotional gaps in his life and his need for love, you got the queasy feeling you had to eat your peas before ripping into the red meat.

Thanks to Mann and Australian screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean), Cruise's Vincent is cut from much the same cloth. Armed with cojones and an automatic pistol, he talks like the cold-blooded professional the movie says he is, but he's also got a weakness for pseudo-existential gibberish and nickel-dime philosophizing that make him sound more sophomoric than complex. If you're in the mood to hear about "cosmic coincidences" and the alienating effects of life in the big city in the pauses between gory bloodlettings, this is the Michael Mann movie for you. But the Cruiser might have done better to shut up and shoot.

Vincent's inevitable foil is a decidedly un-Travis Bickle-like taxi driver named Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx), a fastidious, low-key guy who's spent twelve years behind the wheel without making progress on his dream, which is to start up a deluxe limo service. Instead he Windexes every last little spot from his car windows and bides his time, which is running out faster than he knows. Through a set of highly unlikely circumstances, the high-powered, highly motivated Vincent blows into the quiet cabbie's life like a hurricane. Vincent takes Max and his cab hostage, and they set out on a long, dark night of bloody mayhem and personal revelation that becomes a little hard to take about the time Vincent shoots an appealing jazz trumpet player (Barry Shabaka Henley) point blank in the forehead -- but only after the jazz-loving Vincent absorbs the poor victim's fascinating story about the night, many years ago, that the legendary Miles Davis dropped by to sit in. This is the first of three L.A. nightclub stops we are destined to make (two of them lethal), along with a hospital visit, a grisly peek into the city morgue, and an elevator ride up to the sixteenth floor of the U.S. Attorney's office, where the usual woman in jeopardy (Jada Pinkett Smith) awaits. We don't know how much the drug lords are paying Vincent, but he's earning every penny.

Meanwhile the straight-laced guy, Max, supposedly comes under his spell -- the spell of Vincent's dangerous resolve, his gift for thinking on the run, his screw-the-world daring. Vincent, the movie implies, is a frighteningly radical version of the kind of man Max would like to become -- self-assured and forever willing to seize the world by the throat. There's an interesting, maybe even perverse joke in play here, based on a reversal of old racial stereotypes: In this scheme of things, the black guy is a meek, middle-class square, and the white guy is an improvisational genius scarred by desperation. What they actually learn from each other is never quite clear; it will take a better mind than mine to unravel Collateral's murky social riddle.

Suffice it to say that Cruise never seems right in this part -- never as treacherous as he should be, nor as mysteriously tortured. Foxx has his moments, but there's no room for his trademark humor, and we can never quite get our minds around the idea that the hit man has beguiled the cabbie. Better that we watch Mark Ruffalo as a streetwise L.A. narc named Fanning: From his jaunty silver earring to the crackling authenticity of his talk, he represents the midnight world of Michael Mann better than the hard-trying principals of the piece.

Theater in South Florida tends to appear in bursts, with a spray of shows often opening on the same weekend. In the scuffle, many shows tend to get overlooked. In some instances, that's not so bad a consequence, but in the case of No Exit, now entering its final week at the Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach, it's tantamount to a crime. J. Barry Lewis's inspired, elegant production is so effective in finding the emotional, comedic, and philosophical nuances of Jean-Paul Sartre's daunting existential script that this 60-year-old play, performed by a first-rate cast, feels perfectly fresh and vital.

Sartre wrote this play during the Nazi occupation of Paris, a dark time indeed for Western civilization. The feel of that era, a morbid, hopeless claustrophobia, is very much in evidence. In the story, sardonic journalist Vincent Cradeau is shown into a bleak hotel suite by an aging bellboy. The windows are bricked up, the mirrors are missing, and the glaring lights have no off switch. Cradeau is not too surprised. He's dead, you see, and this must be what hell is like -- an endless stay in a tacky hotel room.

Cradeau is soon joined by Inez Serrano, a mannish lesbian, and Estelle Delaunay, a style-conscious socialite, both recently departed from the living world. All expected to meet torturers, not fellow residents. They don't want to get to know each other, but as they find they are locked in the suite, they decide to make the best of it. Soon, though, these restless, troubled souls begin getting on each other's nerves. Inez is attracted to Estelle, who turns to Cradeau for solace, but he rebuffs her. As all three dance this tarantella of desire and avoidance, they find they are able to glimpse visions of what things are like back in the lives they left. But while time seems to have stopped in their hotel Hell, on Earth life is whisking by at warp speed -- months, years pass within the space of mere moments.

A slow striptease of pretense ensues as the characters begin to reveal what brought them to this place of no escape. Cradeau was a Nazi collaborator and a cruel wife-abuser, carrying on an affair in her presence. Inez seduced a woman away from a sensitive young man, who killed himself. Estelle, a cross between Blanche DuBois and Lady MacBeth, reveals a horrible crime Lady MacBeth only dreamed of committing. But as they expose their souls, this doomed trio comes to the realization that their meeting wasn't mere chance. It's all part of a devilish scheme, as each of these characters is perfectly suited to tormenting the other two. "Hell is other people," declares Cradeau.

No Exit is one of those seminal modern classics that everyone admires and assiduously avoids. It's known as a dense, philosophical treatise about life and meaning and meaninglessness, the theatrical equivalent of cod liver oil. What a surprise, then, to find this Dramaworks production to be a tense, edgy drama filled with twists, turns, sexual heat, and sudden moments of wit, a combination that feels perfectly contemporary. The cast is exceptionally able, turning what could be dry material into a compelling power struggle. As Cradeau, William Hayes uses his sonorous voice and formidable stage presence to good effect, creating a self-aware intellectual condemned to doubt his deepest motivations. Nanique Gheridian is his match as the lustful, spiteful Inez, a seeming tough gal with inner torments of her own. But the production's most vivid portrayal comes from Margery Lowe as Estelle, the flighty socialite whose stylish demeanor masks a thoroughly lost soul. At first she's merely a silly neurotic -- her first complaint is that the shabby furniture in green and red clashes with her outfit. Then a more profound, frightening narcissism emerges. The room's lack of mirrors, even in her makeup kit, makes her increasingly jumpy. "When I can't see myself, I can't feel myself," Estelle confesses, her desperate need for validation sending her toward total disintegration. With a tremulous voice and darting, furtive body language, Lowe delivers a memorable performance, tracking Estelle's descent with heart-rending clarity.

The production is skillfully guided by J. Barry Lewis, who doesn't miss any opportunity for emotional impact. He makes dramatic use of the simplest moment -- even a door opening is given resonance and portent -- and he doesn't let all the highbrow talk upstage the three-way clashes. As a result, this No Exit has a headlong, breathless quality that's remarkably effective. A potentially airless talkathon instead becomes a steamy melodrama of sexual desire and painful self-discovery.

In its short history, the Palm Beach Dramaworks has earned a solid reputation as a thinking person's theater, continually challenging its growing audience with substantive scripts and solid productions. In a cacophonous culture cluttered with the trivial and the fraudulent, such efforts are often overlooked -- but they should not be.

It is by now clear that Meg Ryan, the bubbling sweetheart of half a dozen romantic comedies, means to bring new substance and seriousness to the latest phase of her career. Witness the lonely New York English teacher she played in last year's brainy slasher flick, In the Cut: In no previous performance had Ryan called up such long-repressed fury or frank sexual hunger. Credit Ryan for the will to break out and director Jane Campion for the sense to encourage her -- even though Ryan reportedly won the part only after first choice Nicole Kidman declined.

Seen in this light, the new Ryan vehicle, Against the Ropes, looks like a regression -- if not an outright mistake -- for an actress eager to expand her range. Despite the tacky wardrobe and the studied accent she employs, Ryan doesn't cut it as smart, street-hardened Jackie Kallen, who made a name for herself in the late Eighties as the first successful female boxing manager in a demimonde long ruled by bent-nosed Neanderthals with cigars stuck in their nasty maws. Ryan's mannered toughness never quite convinces us she's seen the inside of a fight gym. On the other hand, her director here was not Campion but actor Charles S. Dutton, whose behind-the-camera skills, developed via cable TV, tend toward the cartoonish. Not only that, Ropes has been sitting on the shelf for almost a year, so it may not reflect how far the new Meg has come.

The real-life Kallen, a Detroit-born former sportswriter and public relations agent who parlayed her gifts into a barrier-breaking third career, was (and is) sheer chutzpah, with a dash of feminist willpower thrown in for good measure. After helping her very first boxer, James Toney, to middleweight and super-middleweight titles, she capitalized by knocking out a volume of self-help aphorisms called Hit Me With Your Best Shot: A Fight Plan for Dealing With All of Life's Hard Knocks, which indicates her gift for opportunism. Today, she manages a small stable of fighters, hires out as a "motivational speaker," and continues to grab the spotlight whenever possible.

The highly fictionalized Jackie Kallen we get here, a fantasy version dreamed up and transplanted to Cleveland by screenwriter Cheryl Edwards (who also wrote the interracial teen romance Save the Last Dance), is, to put it gently, a more exemplary piece of work than the genuine article. She's a golden-tressed, golden-hearted striver who hardly ever stoops to the fight game's low deceits or seedy manipulations. Instead Ryan's Jackie treats everyone with saintly respect while nobly working her way to the top and casually deflecting a constant barrage of male-chauvinist insults -- from epithets like "half-pint" and "Barbie Doll" to guys lasciviously wagging their tongues at her. Only at her peak is the voracious, soul-killing publicity hound inside Jackie bestirred, but even then she sees the light and returns to form. In the actual, bloodstained world of boxing, this cleaned-up movie Jackie would have the same chance of survival as Woody Allen going four rounds with Lennox Lewis.

Meanwhile Edwards and Dutton bring on all the usual fight-movie caricatures, albeit curiously well-scrubbed and vaguely sanitized in terms of speech and manner. The James Toney surrogate here is one Luther Shaw (Higher Learning's Omar Epps), whose raw skills Jackie first spots as he's punching his way out of a crack house, and who quickly (too quickly, it seems) comes around to her protective instincts and gift for inspiration. Epps, who also played Dr. Dennis Gant on ER, has been beautifully coached to look like a real boxer (kudos to fight-fan Dutton for seeing to it), and the actual bouts may be the most authentic thing about the movie. Otherwise we've got Tony Shalhoub (famous these days as the obsessive-compulsive TV detective Monk) as the obligatory mean-spirited, mobbed-up fight promoter we see in every boxing flick, and Dutton himself as another familiar type, the wise old trainer who comes out of retirement because he's got one last shot to develop a champion. Both guys are stuffed full of synthetic grit and pseudo-tough talk, but no less than Ryan herself.

In the end, the inevitable Big Fight is quickly followed by the inevitable Moment of Personal Triumph. In this case, it's the toast-raising, if grudging and momentary, acceptance of Jackie Kallen by her rough-hewn peers during a fight-night afterparty at -- you guessed it -- a red-walled Italian restaurant filled with boozy extras. Our heroine may have won her battles against the odds and male bigotry, but even in that moment of supposed emotional uplift Against the Ropes hardly lays a glove on us.

With any luck, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, himself, will make an appearance at the Brazilian Film Festival. Indeed Lula would make a jolly addition to the films which, this year, express a bent toward the left-leaning policies Lula himself personifies. The charismatic former labor leader who rose to power through a populist movement, despite the handicaps of a limited education and rumors of alcoholism, would fit right in making a ruddy-nosed opening toast in Miami.

Most of the plot lines of the ten features and documentaries in competition portray underdogs, the enlightened poor, and the colorfully simple; characters such as Lula (sans alcoholic beverage in hand). With the exception of two romantic comedies, the image of Brazil in this year's selections veers away from cosmopolitan chic, and sticks to the plight of the downtrodden. There are heavy-handed portrayals of revolutionary film directors, street rappers, and fallen heroes with sparse conspicuous consumption or gratuitous sex. If the feeling is less than festive, perhaps that's part of the plan.

The feature documentary The Prisoner of the Iron Bars (O Prisioneiro da Grade de Ferro) screening Wednesday, June 9, could be a fitting example. From the outset, one is prepared for a gritty insider look at Carandiru House of Detention, the largest penitentiary in Latin America before it was torn down in 2002. In the opening credits, viewers are told that the film is actually shot by inmates. But as the film unspools, one sees well-crafted shots of the daily routine -- from the prison's organized food distribution system to the choreographed march of the clean-up crew. It soon becomes clear that the prisoners' own footage plays just a small role, such as jumpy closeups of centerfolds and overcrowded cells.

In one segment we meet Bea, a young inmate who works out daily in the boxing gym. He is strong and healthy with a solid middleweight frame. Smilingly he tells viewers he will show the gym, the grim circumstances, and a convict trying to do good. He casts a troubling pall on the entire project by saying, "There's no gym anymore. They had to shut it down, but we have recorded a couple of things."

The ensuing scene is of Bea and fellow boxer Joao sparring. Joao sports a fresh haircut for the camera, then offers: "You can see for yourself no one's smoking marijuana or doing nothing wrong."

From the boxers to the clandestine distillation of alcohol, to the black-market selling of cigarettes and the chemistry class, there is a staged quality to the scenes. An all-too-rosy picture emerges that would make an eight-year-old want to be a prisoner at Carandiru.

Especially after viewing the pictures of atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the documentary feels unreal and unbalanced. Despite the insistence that Carandiru is "a portal of Hell," the inmates filmed are clean, well fed, and sane (including the Satanist). The project smacks of a brand of brutality that is different from Abu Ghraib -- that of state-controlled propaganda.

The feeling crosses over into many of the dramatic feature films. A shining example is Under the Surface -- A Journey Up São Francisco River (Espelho D'Água -- Uma Viagem no Rio São Francisco). This film is the allegorical tale of Celeste (Regina Dourado), who leaves Rio to find her boyfriend Henrique (Fabio Assunção), an adventure-seeking photographer in Brazil's Sao Francisco River Valley.

As action-packed and prone to divine acts of intervention as a Bollywood spectacle, Under the Surface in each scene is heavily sculpted with archetypes of wise old river dwellers, good-hearted Santería practitioners, a strapping hero who is wily, honest, and hard to catch.

Under the Surface makes for easy watching, up to a point. The story is florid with mystical intrigue and the characters are, indeed, likable. Unfortunately the film is mired in successive vignettes that each offers its own moral lesson. The result, as with much of the dramatic works at this year's festival, is that Under the Surface is sunk by its own overbearing social doctrine, which is presented in a gloriously manicured and heroic light. The allegory falls just a tad short in its righteousness of the 1964 Marxist ballbuster, I Am Cuba.

Some would say that the bleeding-heart liberality is borne from the Brazilian concept of saudade, the darkly sweet pleasure of melancholy. Perhaps that's true, but aside from the comedies, no drama displays a cynical eye or ironic humor as in the classic film Bye Bye Brazil (screening Thursday, June 10, as part of the festival's José Wilker retrospective). Garrincha, Lonely Star (Garrincha -- Estrela Solitária), a biopic about fallen soccer hero Garrincha, would be an attractive sports tale were it not weighed down by saudade and hero worship. The magnetic Taís Araújo lifts the film off the ground as the femme fatale Elza Soares, but otherwise Garrincha languishes in sentimentality. Passing By (De Passagem), the tale of three young men who grew up in the slums of São Paolo, also falls victim to sentimental suffering.

Only the comedies So Normal (Os Normais) and Sex, Love, and Betrayal (Sexo, Amor e Traição) manage to break the cycle of heavy-handed morality and heartache.

So Normal, the film version of the popular Brazilian sitcom, sparkles with spastic humor and a tight Abbott and Costello exchange. The film features the antics of Rui, Vani, Martha, and Sergio (Luiz Fernando Guimarães, Fernanda Torres, Marisa Orth, and Evandro Mesquita), two pairs of mismatched couples who cross paths in back-to-back wedding ceremonies. When Martha refuses to lend Vani rice for Vani's ceremony, an onslaught of slapstick and bawdy humor is unleashed. It turns out that Martha and Sergio are secretly involved, and soon Rui and Vani fall for each other. The script is elevated by strong comedic performances, especially from Torres, who tears up the scenes in a saucy bridal gown, and Guimarães, whose brand of physical comedy is topnotch.

The sumptuous comedies could lure Lula to fits of laughter with their infectious wit, though the more serious films would unleash a torrent of nostalgic, cachaça-soaked tears.

The Brazilian Film Festival kicks off at 8:00 p.m. Sunday, June 6, at the plaza at Española Way. Admission is free. The films of José Wilker are presented at 8:30 p.m. Monday, June 7, through Friday June 11, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, 512 Española Way. The film competition begins at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 9, and runs through Saturday, June 12, at the Lincoln Theatre, 541 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach. All tickets cost $8 to $10. The Cristal Lens Awards are presented with a concert by Olodum starting at 8:00 p.m. Sunday, June 13, at the Lincoln Theatre. Tickets range from $18 to $22. Call 877-877-7677 or see

As a professional wrestler, the Rock faced down giants like Hulk Hogan, the Undertaker, and the seven-foot-four Big Show. As an actor, in a relatively short period of time, he's held his own onscreen with Oscar-nominated Michael Clarke Duncan and Oscar winner Christopher Walken (whom he describes as "geniusly insane"). Behind the scenes, in his home life as Dwayne Johnson, he's been dealing with the challenges that come from being a new father.

Today, however, he's going to face a new challenge. The Rock is going to have to answer a series of tough questions posed to him by ... wrestling T-shirts.

Unlike the merchandise available at many pop culture spectacles, wrestling shirts do not necessarily feature images of the star, or even said star's name. More often, they sport a catchy slogan or double-entendre, frequently phrased, Jeopardy-style, in the form of a question. Today, we're going to see if the coolest wrestler in the world has the answers.

A Hulk Hogan shirt demands to know: What'cha gonna do, brother?

The Rock responds, "I'ma slap the lips right off your face if you ask me that stupid question again. And don't ever call me 'brother.'"

A shirt for Al Snow, who's known for wielding a mannequin's head, inquires: Got head?

"Yeah. Got balls?"

One of the most popular Stone Cold Steve Austin shirts ever sold simply says: What?

"Come a little closer, I'm gonna box your ears and dot your eyes real quick, and you won't ask me 'what' again."

Last up, a shirt for five-time world champion Booker T wants an answer: Can you dig it, sucka?

Finally the Rock breaks character and cracks up. "That's my boy!" he laughs, referring to Booker, the Houston wrestler best known for a break dance-like maneuver called the spin-a-roony.

The Rock's latest film, a remake of the 1973 action-drama Walking Tall, has more ties to wrestling than just its star. The original film's protagonist, Joe Don Baker's Sheriff Buford Pusser, was a retired grappler known as the Bull. As a kid, growing up the son of wrestler Rocky Johnson, this made a big impression on eight-year-old Dwayne. "When I was a kid, that's a big reason I loved the movie, like, 'Wow, he's one of the wrestlers,' you know what I mean? Especially when I was a kid, wrestling was such a closed business -- it wasn't global. So it was like, 'Wow, big movie, this guy's a wrestler?' It was awesome."

Fans of Eighties wrestling product are also familiar with the notion of a righteous hero taking on rule-breaking miscreants with a big piece of wood -- "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, inspired by the original film, always had a trusty two-by-four in his corner. "He's very, very proud, by the way," says the Rock. So did the star on the set ever cut loose with Duggan's trademark "Hooooo!" yell? "Oh my God, never ever. I think I'd be put in a straitjacket or sent to jail ... plus that's called gimmick infringement. I can't do that, that's his deal." Even the signature piece of wood is now a four-by-four, to avoid having the exact same dimensions as Duggan's enforcer. Director Kevin Bray suggested an aluminum baseball bat, which was quickly vetoed by the star.

The Rock soon got comfortable wielding the plank; too comfortable, on one occasion, in a scene where he was supposed to smash the taillight on the villain's car, and ended up costing the studio 70 grand to replace the rented vehicle. "I dented it badly, and then we kept doing take after take where I would hit it, but when you're trying to hit the taillight in the scene, you're hitting the bumper, you're hitting everything, so they just wound up getting it, and I think a producer's driving it now."

Much was made of the scene in last year's The Rundown where an unbilled Arnold Schwarzenegger essentially passed the action-hero torch to the Rock, but despite being every bit as built as California's governor, the man known to WWE fans as the People's Champion is looking to establish a less Terminator-like persona. "A lot of times, when the writers write, their initial instinct is to be just straight-on ass-kicking, barrel through everybody, whereas in reality it's important to showcase the vulnerability." Unlike certain prima donna wrestling stars of today, the Rock proudly notes that he always lost more matches than he won, and cites the Seventies movies of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen as his favorite actioners. "They take time in telling the story, and it's not just action for the sake of action," he says. "In movies it's important to me to show jeopardy, and there are moments when I get whupped."

In the Rock's next movie, however, he won't be getting whupped; he says there's no action at all, in fact. It's Be Cool, the sequel to Get Shorty, written by Elmore Leonard with the Rock in mind. The character of Elliot Wilhelm is described as Samoan, 30, can raise one eyebrow, is trying to act, wants to sing ... and gay. Yes, fans, if you were wondering why he sported that slightly effeminate-looking goatee when teaming with Mick Foley at WrestleMania XX, now you know. Some jocks might have a problem with such a character stretch, but not the Rock. "It's fine, you know? I'm a liberal guy anyway, so for me, I just thought, wow, it's a great opportunity to work [with] these other actors [among them John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, and James Gandolfini], and I get to play a character where I poke fun at myself, and gay too, something nobody would have ever thought about. Sure, why not?"

Beyond that, there's the video game adaptation Spy Hunter (of his role, he says simply, "It's a hunter of spies, hence the title") and the Hawaiian historical epic King Kamehameha, which he describes as a more violent version of Braveheart, and a change of pace from the PG-13 fare he generally tries to stick to so as not to disappoint his younger fans. In between projects, he hopes to return to the ring as time allows. "A lot of my [acting] buddies, they go back to theater and I understand that, because they go back to get that live interaction. The ring is my stage, and I always have a lot of fun."

If and when he goes back to Vince McMahon's arena, he won't be going unprepared. The Rock keeps up on current ring events, and maintains sufficient attachment to the storylines that when this reporter tells him that former archrival Triple-H will not be traded from the Monday-night Raw show to the Thursday-night Smackdown show as promised, he dramatically knocks an empty bottle off the table. "I bet the Raw guys are throwing a celebration now," he adds sarcastically, apparently displeased.

With the Rock off making movies, and Stone Cold Steve Austin forcibly retired from repeated injuries, wrestling is undoubtedly suffering. Minnesota behemoth Brock Lesnar was officially dubbed "The Next Big Thing," only to quit last month to try out for the NFL ("It's a ballsy move, and I admire that," says the Rock). So does the People's Champ see a potential successor on the horizon? "If there is, I haven't seen him yet, to be honest with you, and it sucks to say, because I love the business. But I think someone will surface. I believe that. It might be someone who's already there, like it happened with me, because I was on my way out as a babyface [good guy]. I was teaming with Flash Funk, fighting the Headbangers, I was doing jobs [losing matches], I was done. Then all of a sudden I turn heel [become a villain]: Boom, boom, bang!" He notes that new Smackdown champion "Latino Heat" Eddie Guerrero, whose career followed a similar arc, might have some mainstream crossover potential.

Asked to finish the interview with his latest catch phrase, Dwayne Johnson pauses. The newest phrase, he explains, is always slightly improvised depending upon the situation. "Hold on.... Okay, this is off the cuff. If I get through this, it's gonna be awesome." He inhales deeply, as if smelling someone's imaginary cooking. Then he lets fly. "It's the jabroni-beatin', pie-eatin', trail blazin', eyebrow raisin', not small, always walking tall, teamed with Mick, carried a big-ass stick, People's Champ the Rock!" Then he busts up laughing at himself -- that the chuckles come so easily is a big part of why he is, indeed, the Great One.

It takes mighty big stones to name your horror movie Saw, knowing full well that that's popular fan-slang for Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie worshiped by gorehounds worldwide. When you take that name for your own, you had damn well better deliver a memorable, worthy contender.

First-time feature director James Wan, a veteran of several TV cooking shows, of all things, need not worry. If Saw isn't the scariest horror movie of the year, it's certainly the most brutal. There are no cutaways from violent acts here, no grotesque depravity Wan is unafraid to visit upon his characters, and most important, there's no one who's safe from the carnage. In most horror films these days, one need only look at the order in which the actors' names appear on the poster to determine who will be left alive at the end. This inevitably saps the level of suspense -- why fear for a character if you know, more or less, that he or she is likely to prevail? Real scaremongers know, and take to heart, the Joe Bob Briggs rule for scary movies: Anyone can die at any time.

In case it isn't already abundantly clear to you, Saw is not a casual date movie. Many will decry it as excessive or sadistic; cultural conservatives will most certainly deem it abhorrent. Scored by Nine Inch Nails' Charlie Clouser, this is a movie for those who already own the bootleg, uncensored cuts of that band's videos and think Natural Born Killers wasn't sufficiently bloodthirsty. Fans of industrial music finally have a mainstream movie release that represents their Zeitgeist -- even the pig mask occasionally worn by the killer seems to be a reference to the frequent use of the word "pig" in industrial songs, which in turn is inspired by the fact that Charles Manson said it a lot.

Anyway. Two men awaken from unconsciousness in a large, dingy bathroom. They are chained to opposite ends of the room, and between them is the body of a man who has apparently blown his own brains out. The younger of the two men, Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), is a photographer; the older, Lawrence (Cary Elwes), is a doctor. Both have envelopes in their pockets containing microcassettes, and Lawrence's also has a single bullet and a small key. The dead man in the middle of the room has a microcassette player.

Lawrence gradually figures out what's happening. Not long ago, he was interrogated by police as a suspect in a case involving a mysterious maniac known as Jigsaw. Referred to as a serial killer, Jigsaw hasn't actually killed anyone in the literal sense. Rather, he singles out people whom he feels don't properly appreciate life (among them Shawnee Smith, star of Chuck Russell's entertaining 1988 remake of The Blob) and places them in elaborate traps that require either self-mutilation or the murder of another person in order to escape. In the trap at hand, Lawrence learns from the tape that he must kill Adam by 6:00 p.m., or his wife and daughter will be killed. Adam can protect himself by escaping first, but there's only one apparent way to do that: Use the bone saws provided to cut off his own foot, thereby escaping the thick chain that binds his leg to the wall (a blatant lift from Mad Max).

Although the men remain in the room for most of the film, the narrative frequently jumps back in time, as we learn more about exactly how Lawrence and Adam came to be there, what their connection to each other is, and how one particular cop (Danny Glover) became obsessed with the Jigsaw case. We're given reasons to suspect that any of them might be in on it. And gradually, more clues are found and put together, in the manner of survival horror video games like Resident Evil (a point lost on the makers of the recent Resident Evil: Apocalypse). Pay close attention, though, as the flashbacks aren't necessarily in the linear order they initially appear to be.

Director Wan is fond of using fast-forward motion to convey information quickly, a tic likely picked up from Tool videos, and at times goes into near-subliminal montages that make a good fit with Clouser's NIN sound-alike score. The quick cuts, when they happen, make sense; this isn't another one of those action movies that uses bad editing to cover up worse fight choreography. Wan also isn't afraid of total darkness -- visually, Saw features the least-lit interiors since David Fincher's Panic Room.

Wan gets so much right that it's a shame he slips up in a couple of key areas. The lead actors simply aren't that great, for one thing. Whannell does OK for a first-timer, but he just doesn't yet have it in him to pull off a lead role, especially an emotionally grueling one. Elwes is better, but not by much. Both manage to pull things together for the climax, but their ability seems to fade in and out several times prior.

As to the climax -- without spoiling, let's just say it depends upon something rather implausible. It's stretching, but possible, to believe in a villain so utterly brilliant that he can anticipate everything -- even the parts of his plan that may go wrong and require double or triple fail-safes. Toward the end, though, he does something that strains believability past the breaking point. It probably won't matter until you start thinking about it afterwards, but if this thing becomes a franchise, let's demand more logic for the sequel.

When it comes to protecting his business interests at Miami International Airport, local entrepreneur Pedro Pelaez counters threats with the ferocity of a Lennox Lewis left hook. In 2001 Pelaez lost a bout with the Miami-Dade Aviation Department when his now-defunct company, Quick Packing, Inc., failed to gain a lucrative multimillion-dollar airport contract to wrap luggage in theft-deterrent cellophane, though he'd offered the county more money than the winning bidder, Secure Wrap of Miami. Before conceding defeat Pelaez relentlessly pummeled aviation department bureaucrats and Secure Wrap's principals with allegations of impropriety and unfair play. As a result of his tenacity, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and county commissioners allowed Pelaez to go a full twelve rounds even though the county's bid process had technically knocked him out in the third.

Today Pelaez is the featured fighter in another match involving a complicated, lucrative business at Miami International Airport. This time the pugnacious 55-year-old Cuban-American businessman is battling to hold on to his prepaid phone card empire at the airport. "The aviation department wants to screw me again just like they did [in 2001]," he growls. "They don't like me because they know I don't play games. When I fight, they know I prepare for all-out war."

Pelaez's company, Communitel, Inc., came in third place behind rivals Latin American Enterprises, Inc. and WTN, Inc. in a bid to win a new, singular prepaid phone card vending contract from the county. These three companies have also sold prepaid phone cards at the airport since 1995 under temporary one-year test permits issued by the aviation department. During that span, the vendors have flourished under three different county aviation directors. Now just one will get the opportunity to remain in business at the airport. After a scathing 2001 report by the Miami-Dade Inspector General's Office concluded the aviation department did not accept bids for a phone card vendor as required by county procedures, Miami-Dade Aviation Director Angela Gittens recommended only one company get a new contract to sell phone cards in the airport terminal. And that company is not Communitel. (Gittens makes award recommendations to County Manager George Burgess, who then relays his own opinion to the county commission, which has final approval over county contracts.)

Since it was first advertised via public notice in several business periodicals in June 2002, the aviation department's bid to select a sole prepaid phone card vendor has served as a bruising exercise in how companies and lobbyists go about winning government contracts and how county commissioners superintend the airport to help out friends and political supporters. It is a situation that has at least one county commissioner clamoring for an independent airport authority to wrest control of MIA away from elected officials. "If we get out of the business of awarding contracts then we won't have these problems," says County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler. "We can pass a billion-dollar construction project without uttering a word, but we'll get worked up about a minor procurement issue like this one."

For more than a year, Pelaez has methodically jabbed away at Gittens's decision to award the contract to Latin American Enterprises (LAE). The telecommunications minimogul hopes to deliver the knockout blow by exploiting the ongoing troubles of LAE's owner, Juan José Pino, the target of a public corruption probe in Argentina who also doesn't pay his fees to the county on time.

Pelaez views the commission as the appropriate agent to undo an injustice by rejecting LAE and awarding the contract to Communitel. "I have been at the airport for [nine] years doing the right thing," Pelaez relates, "paying my fair share, reporting what I had to report to the county, and producing more revenues than the other two companies I compete with. Why should I lie down and let the system walk all over me unfairly?"

Miami International Airport (MIA) encompasses 3230 acres and employs more than 36,000 people, a thrumming little city unto itself. According to aviation department figures, the airport put $9.5 billion into Miami-Dade County's economy last year. Currently MIA is undergoing a $4.8 billion expansion that will add an additional 2.7 million square feet to the airport's 7.4 million-square-foot, horseshoe-shaped terminal. Scattered throughout the terminal are dozens of restaurants, cocktail lounges, hair salons, pharmacies, and shops, which together kicked in $43,135,497 in revenues to the aviation department last year.

In charge of this behemoth is Gittens: a spirited career bureaucrat whose decisions are as quick, decisive, and jarring as a Sugar Ray Leonard punch combo. She was tapped by former County Manager Merrett Stierheim in March 2001 to replace Gary Dellapa. Stierheim, a bull of an autocrat himself, wanted a customer-oriented professional willing to square off with political insiders who do business at the airport, one of the county's primary economic engines. Since her arrival, Gittens, with the Miami Herald and local business groups including the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in her corner, has won several key matches with county commissioners over her apolitical decisions regarding airport procurement. [page]

During the past three years, one of Gittens's top fiscal priorities has been to make sure MIA has only one phone card vendor. Typically, private businesses need to win a county contract in order to snag a piece of the action at the airport, though the aviation department will occasionally issue temporary one-year permits so that companies can test the market for particular products or services. Such was the case in 1995, when the aviation department issued separate test permits to Communitel, LAE, and WTN. Under normal county procurement rules, a single phone card vendor should have been selected by bid in 1996 when the test permits expired. Instead the three companies all continued to operate.

When Communitel, LAE, and WTN set up shop at the airport nine years ago, the prepaid phone card business model was just taking hold in major airports with international hubs. Back then, phone cards, about the size and shape of a credit card (often emblazoned with soccer team emblems, nature scenes, and pop culture images), were a cheap and easy way for people to make long-distance phone calls while waiting at MIA. Instead of paying upward of a dollar per minute at public pay phones, travelers could buy phone cards, with charges of only a few cents per minute. Users dial a toll-free number, punch in a numeric code, and are connected.

Despite the emergence of wireless technology, Pelaez says international travelers still find value in using phone cards, since using a cell phone with a billing base in another country while in the U.S. can produce exorbitant roaming and long-distance charges. "It's cheaper to use your cellular phone to make a long-distance call within the 50 states," Pelaez notes. "But if you're coming in from France and decide to use your cell phone to make a call, it will probably cost you $3.50 a minute, or something like that. So it's more economically feasible for international travelers to use a prepaid phone card."

Communitel's sales at MIA indicate that business is good. Nearly 15 million international passengers pass through the airport each year. Between 1998 and 2003, Communitel collected about $4.5 million in revenues. LAE and WTN generated about $4.1 million and $3.6 million respectively during the same period. The Miami-Dade Aviation Department gets a cut from each company's coffers. When the permits were issued in 1995, the department required the three vendors to pay the county fifteen percent of their revenues. Since April the companies have been required to pay 25 percent or $20,833 a month, whichever is greater. Between 1998 and 2003 Communitel paid $841,576 to the county, Latin American Enterprises paid $739,940, and WTN paid $688,319.

In late 2001 Christopher Mazzella, the county's inspector general, issued a report that found the aviation department had committed numerous violations of the county's bid and contract management procedures with the phone card permits. Mazzella's report noted that the department had allowed the three companies to add machines without approval from the county. He also questioned whether the phone card companies were underreporting their revenues. Mazzella recommended the aviation department conduct a financial audit of the three companies and that the county award a contract to a single vendor. Two years ago, the aviation department finally accepted bids for a phone card vendor based strictly on which company would provide the best return to the county. According to public records, WTN won by offering the county an annual minimum guarantee of $1,089,312. Communitel offered $1,080,009 and LAE offered $1,081,495. The total difference between WTN's winning bid and Communitel's bid is only $9303. Pelaez refuses to accept his defeat by such a narrow margin and decries Gittens's recommendation to award the new contract to LAE; it won by default after WTN, the top bidder, dropped out. Pelaez is demanding that the county conduct the financial audit of the three companies requested by the inspector general in 2001. He says he hopes an audit will reflect poorly upon LAE, and that county officials will subsequently award the contract to Communitel.

Gittens, however, maintains there is no need to further delay the contract award. "[Pelaez's] complaints about LAE are part of the normal course of business," she says. "He could argue this and that. But rather than get caught up in a pissing contest among vendors, I am more concerned with the experience of travelers going through Miami International Airport."

Gittens further notes that the contract was awarded solely based on price. The rules, she emphasizes, did not include bidders' past performance at the airport, nor disqualification based on ongoing criminal investigations. "To suggest that we now use other criteria to make the award decision is not the kind of thing we should be doing," Gittens insists. "That is exactly the reason why Miami International Airport has developed a reputation as a difficult place to do business with." [page]

Gittens has backup from Burgess and Mazzella. On December 10 Mazzella issued an update to his 2001 report approving the new contract. He says an audit would be "impractical" and that "the Office of the Inspector General does not feel that the same imperative need for an independent audit exists today against the backdrop of an impending recommended contract award." The inspector general added that the proposed contract incorporates virtually all of his 2001 recommendations.

Although Mazzella declined comment about the report, he made it clear he believes Pelaez is unnecessarily delaying the contract award. "Unfortunately, a process that has been transparent, fair, and comprehensive is being undermined by questionable tactics that have included the circulation of divisive and misleading allegations of impropriety directed at the highest bidder," Mazzella wrote.

Since the summer of 2003, Miami lawyer Miguel de Grandy has absorbed the shock of body blows Pelaez has inflicted, intended for his client Juan José Pino, LAE's embattled owner. The imposing but genteel de Grandy, a scholarly man with a salt-and-pepper beard, is used to participating in big political brawls. His biggest conquest was his successful legal representation of the Republican Party during the 2000 presidential vote recount in Florida. The lawyer says Pelaez has vilified Pino, disseminating negative news stories about Pino's acrimonious divorce and his alleged role in an Argentine public corruption scandal. Although Pino faces serious charges in his home country, de Grandy notes that Pino has not been found guilty of any crime. "It's like shadow boxing," de Grandy says, describing how he responds to Pelaez's bombardment. "He comes up with a slander du jour every day about my client."

Pino was unavailable for comment despite several attempts to contact him via de Grandy, who says his client is always traveling and difficult to reach. Pino may be laying low for other reasons. The telecommunications entrepreneur is under investigation for allegedly laundering money as part of the illicit enrichment of Ramon Hernandez, who served as the personal secretary to former Argentine President Carlos Menem, according to a series of articles in El Nuevo Herald and El Clarin, Argentina's largest daily newspaper. In a telephone interview with New Times, an Argentine anti-corruption official confirmed an ongoing investigation of Pino, Hernandez, and others. Investigators are poring over numerous transactions involving Pino and Hernandez, including property purchases in Miami and wire transfers that allegedly link the two men, says Marcelo Colombo, investigations coordinator for Argentina's anti-corruption office, an agency within the country's Ministry of Justice. Pino's main accuser is a former lover, Maria Teresa Bisso, who worked as LAE's marketing director until 1997. According to her statements, Pino "would not withstand an audit to justify his income and expenses." Recently Norberto Oyarbide, the Argentine federal judge presiding over the case, subpoenaed records for several telecommunications companies Pino owns, including LAE.

Pino, a former Argentine federal police officer who immigrated to Miami in 1983, also provoked the wrath of a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge. According to court records, Pino's ex-wife, Claudia Rasso, sued him in 2001 for his refusal to pay her $500,000 as part of their 1998 divorce settlement. Pino was supposed to pay her the money upon the sale of LAE to Ursus Telecom, Inc. that year.

Judge Alejandro Ferrer held Pino in contempt for refusing to allow Rasso's attorney access to Pino's personal and company bank records. During the May 2001 civil court hearing, Ferrer admonished Pino for his evasiveness. "I don't know you from Adam. You could be laundering money or hiding money from your wife or be completely aboveboard. There's no way for me to know ... I only know there's enough reason for me to feel suspicious about what has gone on up to now."

Pino also has problems paying his fees to the aviation department on time. According to the department's finance division, vendors are supposed to pay fees to the airport on the first of every month. On June 10 of last year, a month before county bureaucrats first recommended awarding the contract to LAE, the aviation department's commercial operations manager, Patricia Ryan, sent Pino notice that he owed the county $58,096. "Although we have called your office on several occasions, you have not responded accordingly," Ryan wrote in a letter to Pino. On June 25, LAE chief financial officer Sergio Rodriguez finally delivered two checks for $20,833 each to the aviation department. In December Pino's company paid the balance of $16,430 to the airport. [page]

A recent review of financial documents and copies of checks filed with the aviation department shows that LAE has paid its fee at least a month late for the past six months. For example the company did not pay its November bill until December 15 -- coincidentally a day before the county commission meeting in which Burgess was to seek, for the second time, approval to negotiate a contract with LAE. Reached on his cell phone, Rodriguez claims he was unaware the company was paying its fees late. "Whenever we're supposed to pay, that's when we pay," Rodriguez asserts.

De Grandy argues that Pino's problems have nothing to do with the county's bid requirements pertaining to the new phone card contract, and says Pelaez is tossing around red herrings to prevent LAE from winning the contract. "If [Pelaez] thinks county commissioners should consider this defamatory information, then why doesn't he bring it up during a public forum so I can have an opportunity to respond?" de Grandy fumes.

In October de Grandy fired off a letter to Carey-Shuler regarding Communitel. The lawyer, who is LAE's only lobbyist (as opposed to Pelaez's five), informed the chairwoman that it had been brought to his attention that "having lost twice on the merits before two neutral [arbitrators], Communitel has re-engaged its lobbying campaign to derail the county manager's recommendation" to award LAE the phone card contract.

De Grandy's distaste for Pelaez's tactics stems from an entanglement three years ago. De Grandy represented Secure Wrap of Miami, the company that was awarded an airport contract to enshroud luggage with layers of theft-deterrent cellophane. Pelaez owned a rival firm, Quick Packing, Inc., that lost to Secure Wrap even though Pelaez offered more money to the county during a lengthy bid process. In the qualifications portion of that bid, Quick Packing was placed fourth by a county selection committee. The aviation department allowed Secure Wrap, which came in first in qualifications, to match Quick Packing's $1.5 million proposal.

During the course of that bidding war, the county, seemingly abruptly, decided to conduct an audit of Secure Wrap, Quick Packing, and a third company, Riveri Strapping, Inc., which operated at MIA under the same test permits as the phone card companies. De Grandy claims Pelaez unleashed his lobbyists to raise questions about the finances of the three baggage wrap companies in order to force the audit, which delayed that contract award by several months.

When the recommendation was finally approved by the county in February 2001, Pelaez convinced Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas to veto the contract award, which caused another month's delay. When the commission subsequently overturned the mayor's veto on March 9, 2001, Pelaez sued the county in Miami-Dade Civil Court to stop the contract from going to Secure Wrap. On August 8, 2001, the judge dismissed Pelaez's complaint, bringing an end to the rigmarole, nearly four years after the county had advertised for bids.

Pelaez, de Grandy says, is using the same tactics to delay the county's decision on the phone card contract so Communitel can continue doing business at the airport indefinitely. He predicts that Pelaez, having lost in the county's arbitration process known as a bid protest hearing, will launch a full-blown sleaze campaign behind closed doors to solidify support among county commissioners. "If that doesn't work, he may go ask the mayor for another veto."

Pelaez sits in Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop on NE Second Avenue. The sweet smell of mojo criollo fills the air as Pelaez digs into a plate of masa de puerco and moros y cristianos. Between bites Pelaez explains his version of the phone card ruckus at Miami International Airport. "I'm not asking anyone for any favors," Pelaez insists. "I'm just defending my right to make a living."

Pelaez is no stranger in Miami-Dade County's most rarefied political circles. His list of connected friends extends from real estate developer Armando Codina to former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez. In the early Eighties Pelaez staked his place as one of the leaders of the Latin Builders Association as well as by helping Suarez win his first term as mayor. Since then Pelaez has raised money for several big-name local pols, including Penelas. Pelaez has also claimed a good number of government contracts. In 1992 he partnered with Universal Aviation to win a ground services contract at MIA. The same year, Pelaez and his brother-in-law formed PZ Construction and with two out-of-state partners won a chunk of a $15.2 million federal contract to dispose of debris from Hurricane Andrew.

In 1994 and 1995 Pelaez got into luggage wrapping and phone cards at MIA. He admits less interest in political fundraising since losing the baggage wrap contract. In fact Pelaez, still sore over that debacle, only recently spoke again with Penelas following a lengthy freeze. Pelaez remains bitter about the way the local media and his opponents portrayed him as a canny political insider who only made money because of his connections. "I'm not a criminal," Pelaez grumbles. "I'm not a delinquent. Everything I've done in my life has been by the book." [page]

Pelaez does indeed raise valid questions about LAE's ability to meet its $1,081,495 annual guarantee to the county.

He worked out spreadsheets comparing the amount of revenue produced by each phone card vendor based on monthly reports the companies submit to the county. Those reports, broken down by individual machines, show Communitel produces the most money for the county. With 22 phone card machines, Communitel paid the county $198,873 from January 2002 through February 2003. During the same period, LAE paid the county $185,531 and WTN ponied up $166,414. Those two companies each operate 28 machines for a total of 56 (78 including Communitel) phone card machines at MIA. Pelaez says the fact that Communitel has historically produced more for the county should be taken into consideration in selecting a winning bid.

He speaks freely of his frustration with Gittens. "She has not been helpful," he complains. "She's hard-headed. She digs in her heels and won't budge. She says, 'Whatever is in the past is water under the bridge. We're going to start fresh with the new contract.' Well, that's bullshit."

Unable to persuade Gittens that he, on the basis of his record at MIA, should be awarded the contract, Pelaez has been tapping old connections with county commissioners. Gittens and Burgess first recommended the county award the phone card contract to LAE during the July 8 county commission meeting. In the days leading up to that meeting, Pelaez lobbied county commissioners to allow him to continue with his appeal before a county arbitrator, as well as requesting a financial audit of the three phone card companies. The commission granted his request. The arbitrator dismissed Pelaez's appeal, but he is still seeking the audit.

Pelaez recently met with Barbara Carey-Shuler, who told New Times she will not allow the aviation department to present LAE with a contract award until staff does the audit, even though the companies already provide annual audited financial statements to the county. "Before they bring it back to us, they better have an audit done," Carey-Shuler insists. "How are we supposed to believe what these companies are telling us?"

Pelaez also pursued Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who wrote memos to Burgess demanding an update on the audit. But Pelaez knows when to call for backup. To that end he hired lobbyist Thomasina Williams, a local attorney and friend of Commissioner Betty Ferguson, who coincidentally fired off a December 8 memo to Burgess asking what county agency would be conducting the audit and what the scope of the inquiry would entail.

Pelaez's all-star lobbying team also includes Fred Balsera, a former Penelas aide; Esther Monzon-Aguirre, a former aide to Commissioner Natacha Seijas; Sergio Pereira, a former county manager; and Sylvester Lukis, the county's former congressional lobbyist. "Some people want to make lobbyists look like members of al Qaeda," Pelaez says. "But lobbyists are one of the oldest industries in this democracy. They help me expose what is wrong with the system."

In a December 16 memo to county commissioners, Burgess reiterated his support of Gittens's decision to award the contract to LAE. He informed county commissioners, however, that the county's Audit and Management Services Department would review the audited financial statements submitted by the three phone card vendors "to further assess the propriety of the gross revenues reported to the county."

With several rounds in his favor, lobbyists in his corner, and county commissioners as the fight judges, it looks like Pelaez just might have a come-from-behind win in his latest rumble at MIA.

In recent years, a lot of what passes for site-specific art seems like a recapitulation of average moments drawn from the land and environmental art of the Sixties and Seventies -- from Richard Long's grass-walking, to Robert Smithson's invasive Spiral Hill, to Michael Heizer's desert ground-scarring, to Gordon Matta-Clark's urban wrecking.

Back then, during the Cold War and before the oil crisis of the Seventies, the environment wasn't considered so important. Then throughout the Nineties, as anything related to nature became "cutting edge," curators and theorists brought back the tenets of land art. The idea was not to go back to those early "intrusions," but to monumentalize nature inside museums and galleries. It was an interesting development but something was missing: authenticity.

To repeat those pioneer gestures today (as revolutionary as they were) would be irresponsible. The environment, ecologically speaking, has been messed with for much too long. So the derelict inner city has become the "new environment" for two reasons: During the late Twentieth Century, as capitalism's urban utopia failed in its promise of better living, our abandoned inner cities became artists' sanctuaries, "pristine" urban forms. Now those forsaken areas are again attractive to market forces, which have begun to reclaim them through gentrification.

Against this backdrop, I'd like to point to two site-specific initiatives, both created to coincide with this year's Art Basel. A number of the works will be available to the public for limited periods over the next several weeks, and they are worth seeing because they address some of these crucial issues. One project is OMNIART, which commandeered warehouses and streets along NE Thirteenth Street between Second Avenue and Miami Court. Miami artist Tina Spiro organized and conceptualized installations, site-specific work, and street performances by more than 50 artists with encouragement from the City of Miami and the cooperation of faculty, students, and alumni from the University of Miami's and FIU's art departments (Carol Damian co-curated some of the installations). The idea was to present "the neighborhood as a work of art."

For site-specific art to succeed, it must establish a particular relationship with its environs. It must add or contrast meaningful dialogue (aesthetic, social, political) to its surroundings. Rehashing stuff just to fill space rarely works, though regrettably this often happens. On the other hand, it's difficult for a curator to achieve specificity without time and money; some of these projects just happen when they happen.

According to Spiro, OMNIART "was an opportunity to produce an urban intervention," by which she intended to take the normal experience of seeing art in a gallery or museum and transform it into something all-encompassing. You could walk by the art, over the art, into the art. You could touch it, hear it, and smell it. In keeping with Spiro's conception of the neighborhood as a work of art, she built replicas of the area's warehouses and filled them with color photos of the actual buildings. You felt the outside inside, and vice versa.

In Warehouse 1, Edouard Duval-Carrié's big and dramatic head totem, bathed in blue light, looked handsome. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's white sound room was barely discernible and dark -- too cryptic to do anything for me. In contrast, Chris Culver's big mural showed smart geometry and color scheme in rendering urban possibilities that were less than obvious. (Culver just graduated from Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High this past June).

Though Tania Bruguera is an important international performance artist, I wasn't impressed with her Autobiografía, a stage surrounded by white walls, microphone on a stand, and the sound of revolutionary harangues blasting through loudspeakers. The room's cold, intense light and the speech felt too sterile to properly convey the mesmerizing "empty" locus of power she obviously intended. Totalitarianism, as Hannah Arendt and Georges Bataille have observed, appeals to theatrical grandiosity; Castro's revolution is no exception. What Bruguera's site needed was raw spectacle.

The best site-specific work here was Magnus Sigurdarson's massive L-shaped installation of thousands of Miami Heralds -- as if a huge mausoleum -- perhaps an unintended pun.

Warehouse 2 had Hugo Moro's Failed Crop, a dimly lit room with dressed mannequins sinking into the ground, a clever take on how our individual economies are faring in today's global economy. Also witty and fun was Endoderm 2 by Leslie A. Speicher, a pouch-shaped room interior made of glued-together slices of white foam, which felt (without shoes) biomorphically shielding and futuristic.

Mangrove, a drawing series by Xavier Cortada, was elegant and a promising new direction for the artist. Natasha Duwin's Cuntal Objects was an assembly of provocative sculptures representing the female womb -- simultaneously attractive and repellent.

Out on the street was Fernando Calzadilla's peculiar wall installation Open Secret. A number of human silhouettes were sledgehammered through the walls (as if strolling along with us) and illuminated by a yellowish light coming from within the crevices. The result was hallucinogenic. I also had fun with Mark Koven's group of kids performing (quite seriously) their art homework from school. [page]

Billie Grace Lynn's colossal (inflatable) white whale entitled Moby Dick, as well as her Dead Mouse (a bleeding Mickey in military attire), humorously conveyed political timeliness and were popular with the public. Patricio Cuello provided a striking counterpoint to the area's dark sky with his festive The Cloud, made of white, red, blue, and yellow balloon-clusters.

Warehouse 3 was OMNIART's pice de résistance. The expansive interior contained installations by Carlos Betancourt, Gretchen Scharnagl, and Kaarina Kaikkonen -- all within axial view. Scharnagl's Küntslicher Walder (Artificial Forest) was a striking assemblage of discarded Christmas-tree trunks hanging from the ceiling. The pruned-shaft arrangement showed a not-so-obvious clearing. One had to walk inside the piece to find a spectacular mass of (dead) bird sculptures.

Betancourt's En la arena sabrosa was an arrangement of almost 6000 sandcastles, molded with a drinking cup and arranged in rows of 54 by 111. The gesture was ephemeral, but the symmetry and repetition of such a simple shape obtained opulence and drama. It had to have been Betancourt's best installation to date.

On the other side of the warehouse was And It Was Empty by Kaikkonen (a recipient of the prestigious Rome Prize this year). She employed hundreds of men's jackets and suspended them from wall to floor, eliciting a mesmerizing landscape (Carol Damian co-curated the installation). These three "sites" worked perfectly. They had the right scale, a sense of drama, and engaged their surroundings meaningfully.

Though not everything at OMNIART looked to be site-specific, the scope of the project and the curatorial labor involved made it a very significant undertaking for FIU's and UM's art departments and students. It was the best school-sponsored event Art Basel has seen so far.

OMNIART's warehouses are now closed to the public, though photos can be viewed at Warehouse 1 will be reincarnated as OMNIART 2 and will reopen for a limited time beginning January 7 in conjunction with the Art Miami fair. Some works from the other warehouses will be incorporated into a reconfigured exhibit.

Not everyone knows that downtown Miami's Lummus Park (just west of I-95 near the Miami River) contains a long, low coral-rock building that served as slave quarters before the Civil War. The historic structure was later moved to its present location after the park, Miami's first, was created in 1909. This is where William Keddell and Brook Dorsch organized Sites-Miami 2004, with installations by 34 local artists.

When I visited the park exhibition on opening night, some people complained about the lack of visibility, but the existing light was, in fact, appropriate. Michael Betancourt's Ghost, a video projection of an actual enslaved female on a loose white sheet, benefited from the shadows. Lou Anne Colodny's huge photo of an old aborigine fixed on a coral wall (and lit from below) exuded a contained force.

Each installation presented a distinct engagement with the park. Robin Griffiths had a monumental bare tree trunk hanging by ropes and chains in between two massive trees. It looked like a tortured soul without limbs -- a strong reflection on our legacy of brutal slavery. To comment upon the human crisis in Sudan's Darfur, David Rohn arranged a gathering of soiled and mutilated dolls on the park's grass, an open mass grave.

Ralph Provisero's formidable plank sculpture elicited elegance and drama and felt historic, though in a more abstract way. Likewise with Robert Huff's wooden water cistern. These pieces evoked a moment in time before the rise of technology. Carlos de Villasante set a playful mood with his iconic canvases that took the shape of a moving wheel, while Rebecca Guarda's spiral assemblage of fluorescent traffic signals suggested some ancient, labyrinthine blueprint.

On a more humorous note, Kyle Trowbridge played with the idea of the manmade appliance vs. nature. He designed detailed operating instructions and placed them at the bottom of trees, as if they were eco-gadgets. Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz, who collaborate under the name Guerra de la Paz, assembled in a circle colorful headless mannequins holding hands, a strange kind of pre-Modern pastoral gesture.

In his seminal Architecture of the City (1966), Aldo Rossi elaborated the idea of "inventory and memory," a sort of metaphysical space "as if stumbling upon what was already there." OMNIART and Sites-Miami 2004 prompted me to consider a model for site-specific work: organic and solemn, yet without pretentious self-importance; striking a balance between subject matter and medium; and blessed with a bit of humor. [page]


January 7 from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., January 8 and 9 from noon to 6:00 p.m. Warehouse 1, corner of NE Second Avenue and Thirteenth Street, Miami; 305-576-2950,

Sites-Miami 2004

Through January 16. Lummus Park, 404 NW Third St., Miami; 305-305-7012 (William Keddell).

Miami Beach has been hot and hip for over a decade, and surrounded by the salt water since long before velvet was first made into ropes. But just try to find a stylish place to dine with a water view. Add to your wish list outdoor dining, courteous service, trendy and tasty food, and downscale prices for this upscale eating experience, and you'll have about as much choice among candidates as liberal Republicans do.

But it's not an impossible dream. Remember William Weld, the eccentric Massachusetts governor in the 1990s? Fiscally staid but socially hip? Not perfect but pretty darned good, and a lot of fun? Well, Miami's sea-seeking diners now have a similar contender (and one that promises to stay on the scene a good deal longer): Roger's, which opened in late April in North Bay Village.

From the outside, the newly built restaurant doesn't exactly exude hipness. It looks like what my gang growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, used to call "parent places," the kinds of restaurants the family would go to on special occasions. In fact Roger's looks like a big, fancy New Jersey steak house. And its setting is not quite in hip/hot Miami Beach, but a mile west of the Beach, along the causeway to the mainland. North Bay Village ranks roughly between Aventura and Kendall on the trend-o-meter.

Valet parking -- another thing my parents loved -- is mandatory but free at Roger's, something you'll never find on South Beach. And the attendants are very friendly. On a second visit, my dining companion and I were recognized as repeat customers; by the third, I was greeted like a regular. (In another plus by South Beach standards, my aging economy car was delivered gently at the end of the meal, not with a screeching halt, as though the driver were a NASCAR contender.) Dinner service was equally accommodating and cordial. And the huge, high-ceilinged, rustic-elegant interior conveys enough of the same welcoming feel that diners forced indoors by the summer heat needn't feel disappointed.

But despite floor-to-ceiling rear windows that look out over the water, Roger's strong suit is its expansive, palm-planted back lawn and dining patio. To one side, a giant tiki hut houses a bar and surrounding booths for diners who prefer a roof over their heads. Tables on a bayfront brick patio accommodate those who prefer the open air. Since the restaurant is on the causeway's north side, a primo nighttime view of downtown illuminated over the bay isn't possible, but the visuals are still spectacular.

The food wasn't as spectacular as the setting, but it's not intended to be. The idea here is casual comfort cuisine. And chef David Downes's stylish take on American (though mainly Southern) classics is very satisfying -- fairly simple stuff, but most of it cooked with more creativity than usual, and elegantly presented. The menu includes about a dozen entrées generously garnished with vegetables (with optional sides available for $4-$5 each). There are plentiful appetizers, sandwiches, burgers, and meal-sized salads to satisfy Roger's grown-up crowd, most of whom appeared to be twenty-to-fortysomething professional people, not club kids. For the real kids -- though none were in evidence during my visits -- there's even PB&J.

Among starters, the potato pancakes with sour cream and salmon caviar were standouts. The patties, about the size of silver dollars, were delectably crispy critters; with no discernible heavy filler, the delicate disks of pressed potato shreds held their shape, apparently, by divine intervention. The salmon eggs were popping fresh.

"Lil' burgers" on biscuits were also excellent, though nothing at all like White Castles (or the South's beloved Crystals). I've tried many chichi chef-made two-biters, but they're never prepared rare enough. Yet the insides of Roger's trio of thick hand-formed miniburgers were perfect: juicy-red and as flavorful as any gourmet hamburgers I've had (except at those places that cheat by throwing in foie gras and charging $40). The biscuits that substituted for rolls were tender and terrific, too.

With precision-cooked ground beef that had not been overworked to toughness, the full-sized Southern burger was equally tasty. Toppings were also quality: flavorful cheddar, fresh onions and mushrooms, and applewood bacon. A super-smoky barbecue sauce added savor. The dish was very messy, however, as the humongous flattened biscuit that served as a bun had baked up rigid rather than pliable, like an oversized cookie. My dining companion ended up with a handful of crumbling biscuit around his dripping meat patty, and a shirt flecked with sautéed onions.

Crispy calamari and fried green tomatoes were both disappointments, owing mainly to coating problems. The calamari came entombed in some sort of breadcrumb crust that, while nicely spiked with chilies, was just too heavy. And the cornmeal coating on the tomato slices was even thicker, with a tendency to slide off whole at first bite, leaving a naked circle of hard, undercooked green tomato. The accompanying sauces didn't help, either. A "sweet, hot dressing" for the tomatoes was tingly enough, but cloying and sticky, essentially a red-pepper jelly. The calamari's marinara tasted like homemade ketchup, and its mayo-based dipping sauce needed more citrus or spice, something bracing enough to cut the fried fat.

Crabcakes were also heavily breaded and had no crab lumps. But the filling, though of uniform texture, was real crab, not surimi, and starch filler was blessedly minimal. An added blessing was the cakes' slightly hot spicing.

While I prefer floured or battered fried chicken, Roger's crumb-coated version was cooked just right; even the white breast meat was moist and juicy. Accompanying coleslaw, an ultrafresh mélange of thinly shredded red cabbage and multicolored bell peppers, was the best I've had in years. Inexplicably, it was not available in the list of optional side dishes but would complement most of Roger's sandwiches or main courses. The side we did order, house-made creamed corn, was wonderful and enough to feed four.

An addictively crackly skin plus the rich gravy made Roger's roast chicken another winner. The gravy came in an elegant little silver cup that was, however, entirely too small. Servers did obligingly bring additional thimblefuls upon request, but c'mon, having to ask for more gravy four times is embarrassing. And the two biscuits that came with the dish -- which I'd expected to be as fantastic as those with the previous visit's lil' burgers -- were shockingly stale.

A piscatorian acquaintance especially enjoyed Roger's pan-seared mahi-mahi, which tasted deliciously fresh. Accompanying lobster mashed potatoes were not merely lobster-flavored (as are many pretenders of the same name) but contained numerous thumbnail-sized lobster chunks.

For dessert, the bread pudding with whiskey sauce sounded like New Orleans' custardy classic but turned out to be a compressed square whose dryness was not alleviated by either the syrupy sauce or a sparse serving of whipped cream. Lingering on with another bottle from Roger's reasonably priced wine list (bottles are grouped, with refreshing lack of pretension, under price categories ranging from $20-$50) would be a far more tempting finish.

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