Monday, December 22, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases

(Click on title to see the film’s trailer)

Pride ***½ Directed by Matthew Warchus. Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine. In an unlikely alliance, striking British mineworkers draw support from a coalition of gay and lesbian activists who solicit donations to help tide over the miners’ families during the 1984 standoff with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government. The film moves effortlessly from some pretty intense dramatic moments to hilarious scenes showcasing the contrasting lifestyles of the gay and straight worlds to some vignettes of incredible poignancy.

The Trip to Italy *** Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon. Two men, six meals in six different places on a road trip around Italy. It’s Sideways meets My Dinner With Andre — a low-key, sensual affair punctuated by off-the-cuff moments of brilliant wit and wordplay — and the result is delectable.

The Good Lie **½ Directed by Philippe Falardeau. Reese Witherspoon. Sudanese refugees given the chance to resettle in America arrive in Kansas City, where their encounter with an employment agency counselor changes their lives. The images have the power to disturb but lack the gut-punch impact necessary to give us an immediate and lasting connection to the protagonists.

A Thousand Times Good Night **½ Directed by Erik Poppe. Juliette Binoche, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. After a near-death experience, a top war photojournalist (Binoche) is forced to choose between her work and the family on whom she depends. The first English-language film from Norwegian director Poppe is a conscientious and beautifully shot movie that ultimately bogs down in its own disinclination to come to any kind of dramatically useful conclusion about its subject.

Monday, December 15, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer


The Guest *** Directed by Adam Wingard. Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe. A soldier introduces himself to the Peterson family, claiming to be a friend of their son who died in action. After the young man is welcomed into their home, a series of accidental deaths seem to be connected to his presence. It’s hellish good fun. Stevens is mesmerizing as the avenger, helping director Wingard turn The Guest into a blast of wicked mirth and malice.

The Skeleton Twins *** Directed by Craig Johnson. Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell. Having both coincidentally cheated death on the same day, estranged twins reunite with the possibility of mending their relationship. If a movie with suicide as a central theme can be deemed funny, then writer/director Johnson has pulled it off, mixing heartache and humor and giving Wiig, especially, the opportunity to shine.

The Maze Runner **½ Directed by Wes Ball. In a postapocalyptic future, an amnesiac named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up to find himself trapped with a group of other teenage boys in a mysterious community called the Glade, where they must uncover the deadly secrets of a giant maze in order to survive. It’s bleak business, and as it hurries toward its explosive, expository conclusion, the film becomes nonsensical, too.

Magic in the Moonlight ** Directed by Woody Allen. Eileen Atkins, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, Suimon McBurney, Emma Stone, Jacki Weaver. Exposing a phony soothsayer proves harder than expected when the debunker (an Englishman) becomes smitten with the purported fraud (a French beauty). It starts off with a flourish and winds up limp, like a rabbit pulled out of a hat that turns out to be dead.

At the Devil’s Door ** Directed by Nicholas McCarthy. When a gung-ho real-estate agent is asked to unload a house with a dark past, she encounters the sellers’ unhinged daughter. Goes right up to the threshold of being an interesting possession saga but never truly gets inside.

This Is Where I Leave You Directed by Shawn Levy. Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Jane Fonda. In accordance with Jewish custom, four siblings gather to sit shivah after their father’s death but are soon bickering and renewing old grudges. A totally aimble, utterly unmoving filler given a major shot in the arm by its cast, people it’s simply a pleasure to watch, even with the creeping feeling they’re better than this.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles * Directed by Jonathan Liebesman. Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Johnny Knoxville, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, William Fichtner, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Shalhoub. When a kingpin threatens New York City, a group of mutated turtle warriors must emerge from the shadows to protect their home. This isn’t a movie; it’s a brand re-launch that’s going to satisfy stockholders far more than it’s going to entertain the people who paid to rent or buy it.

Cam2Cam * Directed by Joel Soisson. While on vacation in Bangkok, Allie Westbrook (Tammin Sursok) meets two expatriate men who invite her to participate in a racy sounding online game. Ostensibly a lame treatise on how slippery self-image can be in the Internet age, the film ultimately reveals itself as a much lamer treatise on the evil sorcery of female sexuality.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Big 12 football fans: Stop your whining

It’s still going on: all this groaning and whining and gnashing of teeth all because poor TCU and poor Baylor got left out of the four-team college football playoff. I read four letters to the editor about it in this morning’s newspaper. Get over it. The system worked. The four best teams got in. And we don’t need to expand the playoff to six, eight or 16 teams to remedy the situation. It’s absolutely fine just the way it is.


How could the voters have TCU ranked No. 3 the week before the final poll and then drop them all the way to sixth at the end, these groaners ask. Actually, that’s not exactly the way it happened. Ohio State played itself into the No. 4 slot. Regardless of what any Big 12 apologist claims, Ohio State’s (and I was not a supporter of the school’s top four qualifications before this) final victory, a 59-0 thrashing of Wisconsin, was not only, by far, the most powerful statement made by any college football team that weekend, but one of the most overpowering of the entire season. And not just because it was in a conference championship game, as the detractors claim, but because it was against a team that was ranked 11th in the AP poll going into the game, had a running back that wound up being the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, and had only lost a game by more than one score once in the last five years. They held that Heisman runner-up, Melvin Gordon, to 76 yards on 26 carries, his second worst performance of the season. Not only that, the Buckeyes were a 4½-point underdog going into the game because the week before they had lost their starting quarterback to a season-ending injury. Nothing that the TCU or Baylor did that weekend — or the entire season, for that matter — even came close to matching what Ohio State did the final weekend of the season. Also consider this: Ohio State finished the season on an 11-game winning streak and defeated nine bowl-eligible teams, all but two by double digits. Ohio State earned that No. 4 ranking.

But there are overlooked reasons why this four-team playoff system worked so well. I don’t know about you, but under the BCS system, the only bowl games I cared one bit about were the BCS championship game and whatever Bowl Texas was in. However, this year, we’ve got a number of high-tier bowl games that are not only extremely watchable, but, if the oddsmakers are correct, will be more thrilling than the semifinals of the playoffs. The Peach Bowl (when was the last time anyone outside of Georgia cared about the Peach Bowl?) has an intriguing TCU-Ole Miss matchup in which TCU is 3½-point favorite. The Cotton Bowl this year will feature a Baylor team that lost its last bowl appearance 52-42 to Central Florida facing a far tougher Michigan State squad. Baylor is a 3-point favorite. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time either the Peach or the Cotton bowls seemed this attractive and it’s all because of a playoff system that worked. As a comparison, Ohio State is a 9½-point dog to Alabama and Oregon is favored over defending national champion Florida State by 9.Only two other bowls have a wider spread.

So here, in short, is what happened to Baylor and TCU: they got passed over by a better team. My advice: Quit crying about it and play your way into the playoff in 2015.

Monday, December 8, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases

(Click on title to view the film’s trailer)


Calvary *** Directed by John Michael McDonagh. Brendan Gleeson. An anonymous man comes to Father James in confession and vows to kill him in one week, simply because the priest is himself a good man. McDonagh (who wrote and directed The Guard and is the brother of Martin In Bruges McDonagh) has crafted a darkly hilarious and deeply ruminative update on the passion play.

Guardians of the Galaxy *** Directed by James Gunn. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro. A group of space criminals must work together to stop the fanatical villain Ronan the Accuser from destroying the galaxy. Though the special effects win the day, Guardians of the Galaxy holds court with a sense of humor that transcends its more familiar ingredients.

Frank *** Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Domnhall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scott McNairy, Michael Fassbinder. An aspiring musician joins a band of eccentrics led by an enigmatic singer — who wears a fake head — and his unstable girlfriend. A film that is always interesting, largely thanks to an entirely committed cast and a writer willing to play with themes like a band improvising until it finds the right tune. There are a few off-key notes but the melody finally comes together.

Dolphin Tale 2 **½ Directed by Charles Martin Smith. Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson. The team of people who saved Winter’s life reassemble in the wake of her surrogate mother’s passing in order to find her a companion so she can remain at the Clearwater Marine Hospital. Life lessons are learned, children do some growing up, nothing too terribly upsetting happens, and the corniness is, mostly, kept to tolerable levels.

Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead **½ Directed by Tommy Wirkola. After medical student Martin escapes from Nazi zombies, he finds himself charged with murdering his friends. The film is playful throughout. Unfortunately, the shoddy treatment of the film’s sole LGBT character and a tendency to use people in wheelchairs as punchlines mar this otherwise delightful gruesome confection.

When the Game Stands Tall Directed by Thomas Carter. Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Alexander Ludwig, Laura Dern. The journey of football coach Bob Ladouceur (Caviezel), who took the De La Salle High School Spartans from obscurity to a 151-game winning streak that shattered all records for any American sport. Hoosiers this ain’t. The redemptive final game has some nice plays and bone-crunching sound effects, but no grit. Ultimately, it’s a ho-hum, bromide-filled production undeserving of a victory dance.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

In new college football playoff system it’s what you call the game the counts

I really hope Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby is on the phone right now. And I hope he stays on the phone until he convinces two of these four teams — Colorado State, BYU, Utah State or Boise State — to leave the conference they are currently members of and join the Big 12. Then it all becomes symmetrical again — you actually have 12 teams in a conference called the Big 12.


But symmetry and logic are the least important reasons for adding these teams. Th real reason is that then you can divide the conference into a South Division — consisting of Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas and Texas Tech — and a North Division with Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, West Virginia and whatever two new teams are added.

Why is that important? Because then you can have a conference championship game and it appears you need to have a conference championship game in order to make it into college football’s four-team playoff. All four teams in the playoff — Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State — won a conference championship this weekend. The two teams left out — Baylor and TCU of the Big 12 — won convincingly yesterday, but they only won regularly scheduled games.

Baylor defeated a very good Kansas State team 38-27. Had the Big 12 had 12 teams in the conference and that Baylor-Kansas State game had been a Conference Championship game and not just a regular season game, I absolutely guarantee you Baylor would replace Ohio State as the No. 4 team in the playoffs. The Bears finished fifth only because that game wasn’t set up as a championship game.

That’s why I hope Bowlsby is on the phone taking steps to correct this injustice.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Bad Apology

It’s a ridiculous idea to begin with: the President of the United States (the most powerful human being in the Free World) pardoning a pair of turkeys. And by that I don’t mean two movies like Dumb and Dumber Too and The Legend of Hercules; I’m talking about the feathered birds usually devoured on Thanksgiving. But even Presidents must endure ridiculous ceremonies so Barack Obama, joined by his two teenage daughters, Mahlia and Sasha, participated n the sparing of the birds. All three looked as if they desperately wanted to be anywhere else but where they were. Especially Mahlia and Sasha who came across just as you would expect any 13-year-old and 16-year-old would. The whole affair would have been quickly forgotten if not for Elizabeth Lauten, a communications director, of all things, for Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., who wrote on her Facebook page:


"Dear Sasha and Malia, I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the First Family, try showing a little class. At least respect the part you play. Then again your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department. Nevertheless, stretch yourself. Rise to the occasion. Act like being in the White House matters to you. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar. And certainly don’t make faces during televised public events."


The only part of this I’m not surprised about is that it came from the office of a southern Republican, who just hate the fact that a black man is in the White House. The reason they oppose all of Obama’s policies is not because they are against them so much, (for example, a bi-partisan immigration reform bill that passed the Senate would pass the House if Republicans there would simply let it come up for a vote) as they simply hate Barack Obama. The kind of personal attacks such as the above one leveled by Ms. Lauten are simply another example.


But going after the President’s two teen-age daughters is simply going too far. And I guess the public outcry over Ms. Lauten’s Facebook post made her realize that fact, so she issued the following apology:


"I wanted to take a moment and apologize for a post I made on Facebook early today judging Sasha and Malia Obama at the annual White House turkey pardoning ceremony. When I first posted on Facebook I reacted to an article and quickly judged two young ladies in a way I would never have wanted to be judged myself as a teenager. After many hours of prayer, talking to my parents, and re-reading my words online I can see more clearly just how hurtful my words were. I'd like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and I pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience."


That is a terrible apology for two reasons:


1. She didn’t apologize to the individuals she should have been apologizing to. She should have begun her apology by saying "I wanted to take a moment and apologize profusely to Sasha and Malia Obama for a post I made on Facebook today judging them at the ...."


2. The statement " I'd like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words ..." She is not apologizing for what she said, like she should be; she only seems to be sorry because some folks were "hurt and offended" by what she said.


And this from someone serving in the capacity as a congressman’s communications director.


Well, to be accurate, a former communications director. Elizabeth Lauten has resigned, as well she should, especially after communicating a wrongheaded Facebook criticism of the President’s daughter followed by a misguided apology that wasn’t really an apology at all.

Monday, December 1, 2014

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's ranking in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 11-1 (1)
2.  Oregon 11-1 (2)
3.  TCU 10-1 (4)
4.  Ohio State 11-1 (8)
5.  Florida State 12-0 (6)
6.  Mississippi 9-3 (11)
7.  Mississippi State 10-2 (3)
8.  Baylor 10-1 (7)
9.  Michigan State 10-2 (12)
10. Georgia 9-3 (5)
11. Kansas State 9-2 (13)
12. Wisconsin 10-2 (14)
13. Georgia Tech 10-24 (19)
14. Arizona 10-2 (16)
15. Auburn 8-4 (10)
16. Missouri 10-2 (17)
17. UCLA 9-3 (9)
18. Oklahoma 8-3 (15)
19. LSU 8-4 (21)
20. Boise State 10-2 (NR)
21. Arizona State 9-3 (18)
22. Clemson 9-3 (24)
23. USC 8-4 (25)
24. Nebraska 9-3 (NR)
25. Louisville 9-3 (23)
Dropped out: Marshall (20), Arkansas (22)

This Week’s DVD Releases

(Click on title to see trailer)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ***½ Directed by Matt Reeves. Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Kod Smit-McPhee. Ten years after a pandemic disease, apes who have survived it are drawn into battle with a group of human survivors. Not quite the intimate parable of the first movie nor a balls-to-the-wall battlefield extravaganza, Dawn is pitched somewhere in the middle, with much of its two hour-plus running time powered by the simmering, expertly sustained tension both between and within the two species.

The Congress **½ Directed by Ari Folman, Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Danny Hustion, Jon Hamm, Kodi Smit-McPhee. A film star agrees to have her digital image recorded for reuse in future films. Despite the handsome payoff, however, she begins to recognize some unforeseen consequences of the deal. Folman’s vision is just too personal and obtuse, and the result can feel rather like watching someone else drop acid, enjoying their giddy descriptions of all the pretty colors but unable to fully engage.

The Hundred-Foot Journey ** Directed by Lasse Hallström. Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte La Bon. The Kadam family leaves India for France where they open a restaurant directly across the road from Madame Mallory’s Michelin-starred eatery. It delivers the kind of sentimental sledgehammering I found myself willing to forgive — the presence of Helen Mirren goes a long way in that regard — but once the story goes off on a pointless tangent, the whole soufflé collapses.

As Above, So Below Directed by John Erick Dowdle. When a team of explorers ventures into the catacombs that lie beneath the streets of Paris, they uncover a dark secret. It’s more unpleasant than scary, and ever so slow in getting up to speed.

The Hero of Color City * Directed by Frank Gladstone. A diverse band of crayons strive to protect not only their magical multihued homeland but the imagination of children everywhere from a terrifying monster. Cannily distills the children’s movie to its lowest common denominator: bright colors flashing on screen.

Kite ½* Directed by Ralph Ziman. India Eisley, Callan McAuliffe, Samuel L. Jackson. When her cop father is killed, a young woman tracks the murderer with the apparent help of his ex-partner. A kill-a-minute gore-a-thon whose twist is so obvious your grandma will see it coming. Kite never gets off the ground.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Missouri prosecutor basically admits to abusing the legal system

Missouri prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch botched it. Big time. His own words prove his mishandling of the Michael Brown shooting case.

Instead of allowing the grand jury hearing the case against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson to act the way a grand jury is supposed to act — i.e., to determine whether there is probable cause to proceed to a trial — McCulloch converted that grand jury into the trial jury, the jury to determine Wilson’s guilt or innocence.

McCulloch admitted last night in a televised news conference he presented all the evidence available in the case. Sorry, but that’s not the prosecutor’s job. He or she is not supposed to assume the role of both the prosecuting and the defense attorney. The job of the prosecutor, as the name implies, is to prosecute. He or she is supposed to tell a grand jury that there is sufficient reason to indict a person for a specific crime — in this case, voluntary manslaughter would seem appropriate and doable. Then the prosecutor is only required to present just enough evidence to win an indictment on that charge. He doesn’t even — nor should he — present all the evidence his prosecutorial team has assembled in hopes of winning a guilty verdict at trial. And he’s certainly not obligated to present the defense’s case as well. He shouldn’t even try. It’s not in his job description. But that’s what Robert McCulloch, by his own admission last night, did.

I am not arguing Wilson’s guilt or innocence here. What I am arguing is that his guilt or innocence should have been decided by 12 of his peers in a criminal jury trial not by a grand jury. That’s simply not a grand jury’s function.

I do wonder about several missing pieces of the puzzle, however, There is no testimony to reveal, nor did any of the reporters at McCulloch’s news conference last night even ask, how far Wilson was from Brown when the white police officer repeatedly shot and killed the unarmed black teenager. To me, that’s a legtimate question. Why didn’t Wilson shoot to incapacitate the subject? Why did he feel he needed to shoot to kill? These are unanswered questions that, from what I gathered, were never posed to the grand jury.

In 1964, when McCulloch was 12 years old, his father, a St. Louis police officer, was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect. He used that killing as the centerpiece of his first campaign for elected prosecutor. He wanted that job, in effect, to get revenge. Last night, I guess, he got it by twisting the legal system into functions it had no right to perform.

Shame on him. Shame on the entire Missouri legal system.

Monday, November 24, 2014

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 10-1 (1)
2.  Oregon 10-1 (2)
3.  Mississippi State 10-1 (4)
4.  TCU 9-1 (5)
5.  Florida State 11-0 (6)
6.  Georgia 9-2 (9)
7.  Ohio State 10-1 (8)
8.  Baylor 9-1 (7)
9.  UCLA 9-2 (12)
10. Auburn 8-3 (10)
11. Mississippi 8-3 (3)
12. Michigan State 9-2 (11)
13. Kansas State 8-2 (14)
14. Wisconsin 9-2 (13)
15. Oklahoma 8-3 (15)
16. Arizona 9-2 (22)
17. Missouri 9-2 (20)
18. Marshall 11-0 (18)
19. Georgia Tech 9-2 (17)
20. Arizona State 9-2 (16)
21. LSU 7-4 (19)
22. Arkansas 6-5 (NR)
23. Louisville 8-3 (NR)
24. Clemson 8-3 (25)
25. Boise State 9-2 (NR)
Dropped out: Nebraska (22), USC (23), Utah (24)

This Week’s DVD Releases

(Click on title to see trailer)

What If **½ Directed by Michael Dowse. Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Megan Park, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall. Wallace (Radcliffe), who is burned out from a string of failed relationships, forms an instant bond with Chantry (Kazan), who lives with her longtime boyfriend. Together, they puzzle out what it means if your best friend is also the love of your life. If you can suspend your incredulity for a moment, What If has its bright moments. And that’s thanks in large part to its leads, who manage to do what Radcliffe has always done well: conjure up a little magic.

War Story ** Directed by Mark Jackson. Catherine Keener, Ben Kingsley, Hafsia Herzi. After being held hostage in Libya, a war photographer struggles to cope with post traumatic stress syndrome and takes some time off to heal in Sicily, where she tries to help a Tunisian immigrant who desperately needs an abortion. Jackson’s direction strips much of the urgency from any character’s grasp by insisting that their dilemmas can only be revealed with stone-faced austerity.

The Giver ** Directed by Phillip Noyce. Jeff Bridges, Merly Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Alexander Skarsgard, Odeya Rush, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift. In a future society called The Community, pain, war and disease have been eradicated, as have individuality and free will. When a teenager learns the truth about the real world, he must decide whether to reveal all or remain quiet. While the adult performances are strong, especially Bridges in the title role, youthful characterizations are not nearly as illuminating as they were on the page.

The November Man Directed by Roger Donaldson. Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey. An ex-CIA operative is brought back in on a very personal mission and finds himself pitted against his former pupil in a deadly game involving high level CIA officials and the Russian president-elect. A humorless, muddled, bloody and generally unpleasant thriller.

The Expendables 3 Directed by Patrick Hughes. Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Antonio Banderas, Jet Li, Wesley Snipes. Dolph Lundgren, Kelsey Grammer, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Expendables square off against a villainous arms trader who’s hell-bent on destroying the team. The Expendables 3 is silly and overblown and it could definitely do without Banderas’ motor-mouth routine (not to mention an out-of-nowhere reference to Benghazi), but it’s less silly and overblown than The Expendables 2, for whatever that’s worth.

Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas * Directed by Tyler Perry. Seeking to impress their daughter’s well-heeled beau with a lavish Christmas shindig, a snooty couple deprives their maid of her holiday. But things don’t go as planned when the housekeeper’s family shows up. An exceptionally poor piece of holiday cash-in product, rushed and ungainly even by the low standard set by Perry’s seven previous Madea films.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Oscar Nominations Predictions -- The Technical Awards

Listed alphabetically. *Indicates the current leading contender.


Best Cinematography
* Birdman
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Interstellar
Unbroken


Best Costume Design
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
* Into the Woods
Maleficent
Mr. Turner


Best Film Editing
Birdman
* Boyhood
Gone Girl
Interstellar
Whiplash


Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Foxcatcher
Guardians of the Galaxy
* Into the Woods


Best Production Design
Birdman
* The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Interstellar
Into the Woods


Best Score
Birdman
Gone Girl
* Interstellar
The Theory of Everything
Unbroken


Best Sound Editing
Fury
Guardians of the Galaxy'
* Interstellar
Unbroken
Whiplash


Best Sound Mixing
Guardians of the Galaxy
* Interstellar
Into the Woods
Unbroken
Whiplash


Best Visual Effects
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The Grand Budapest Hotel'
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Armies
* Interstellar



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Good night, Mike

One of the truly great ones says good-bye. I never met Mike Nichols, but I marveled at him beginning with his days as half of the comedy duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. I remember standing in line waiting to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the rain in New York City and being stunned by the fact that this was a work of a first-time director. His directorial touches in only his second film, The Graduate, are still being taught in film school and the ending of that film shows how you can say so much without saying anything. I also think he never received the credit he deserved for films such as Silkwood, Catch-22, and Primary Colors. I don't think he was America's greatest contemporary director, I reserve that honor for Martin Scorsese. But he's certainly in the group portrait.

Oscar Nominations Predictions -- The Major Awards

It's that time of year again when I start making my fearless predictions on what will be nominated for the various Oscars. Today, I'm going to predict those artists and films I believe will be nominated for the major awards; however, I must inform you I also reserve the right to update these choices the closer we get to nomination announcement time. Tomorrow, I will give you my choices for the technical nominations. They are listed within each category in the order I believe they have the best chance to be nominated. So, here we go:


Best Picture
Boyhood
Birdman
The Imitation Game
Unbroken
The Theory of Everything
Selma
Gone Girl
Foxcatcher
Whiplash
Interstellar


Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken
Ava DuVernay, Selma
David Fincher, Gone Girl


Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
David Oyelowo, Selma
Steve Carrell, Foxcatcher


Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Reece Witherspoon, Wild
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Amy Adams, Big Eyes


Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Tom Wilkinson, Selma


Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Emma Stone, Birdman
Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods


Best Original Screenplay
Boyhood
Birdman
Foxcatcher
Whiplash
The Grand Budapest Hotel


Best Adapted Screenplay
Gone Girl
Unbroken
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Wild


Best Animated Feature
The Lego Movie
Big Hero 6
How To Train Your Dragon 2
The Boxtrolls
The Book of Life

Monday, November 17, 2014

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 9-1 (1)
2.  Oregon 9-1 (3)
3.  Mississippi 8-2 (5)
4.  Mississippi State 9-1 (2)
5.  TCU 9-1 (4)
6.  Florida State 10-0 (7)
7.  Ohio State 9-1 (9)
8.  Baylor 8-1 (8)
9.  Georgia 8-2 (11)
10. Auburn 7-3 (6)
11. UCLA 8-2 (13)
12. Michigan State 8-2 (16)
13. Kansas State 7-2 (14)
14. Wisconsin 8-2 (20)
15. Oklahoma 7-3 (17)
16. Georgia Tech 9-2 (24)
17. Arizona State 8-2 (10)
18. Marshall 10-0 (21)
19. Arizona 8-2 (23)
20. Missouri 8-2 (NR)
21. Nebraska 8-2 (15)
22. LSU 7-4 (12)
23. USC 7-3 (25)
24. Utah 7-3 (NR)
25. Clemson 7-3 (18)
Dropped out: Notre Dame (19), Texas A&M (22)

Only Republicans can make Texas blue



Texas Democrats can take a lesson from this most recent statewide election: There is nothing — absolutely nothing — they can do to elect one of their own to a statewide office.

Want proof? You would think that competency might triumph over ideology in an election. Not so, here in Texas. Look at the comptroller’s race. I’m betting 90 percent of the Republicans who voted for the Republican nominee for comptroller couldn’t tell me what his name is. Didn’t matter. He was a Republican. Now the comptroller is a fairly important office: It’s the comptroller’s job to tell the legislature how much money it will be able to spend over any two-year cycle. If the comptroller gets the estimate wrong, as was the case with incumbent Susan Combs, legislators will be forced to make extreme spending cuts they don’t have to make, which is largely the reason for the massive and ultimately unnecessary cuts the legislature made in 2011 to the state’s public education system.

In November’s election, voters had a choice between electing as comptroller an accountant, who was a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers (yep, that’s all one word now), or a rice farmer. Now which makes more sense when it comes to handling the state’s financial forecast? Trick question because the rice farmer won. By 20 percentage points. Strictly because he was a Republican.

See what I mean? Putting far more qualified candidates on the ballot isn’t going to do anything to help Democrats win statewide elections.
Comedian Jon Stewart summed it up pretty accurately during a recent stay in Austin.
"You poor bastards," Stewart told his live audience. "Democrats in Texas are like the drunk guy at the bar who won’t stop hitting on a girl, even though we know she’s a lesbian; ‘no, no, no, dude, trust me. I can flip her, I just need time.’"
Only Republicans can help Democrats win. That’s right. Democrats can’t win in Texas — they simply are going to have to wait for Republicans to screw it up and lose.

How might that happen? It’s going to take a combination of things, some of which you may not want to happen. Such as, the Texas economy is going to have to tank. Big time. Full-scale depression. Food lines. Massive, widespread unemployment. If such a disaster befalls the state, voters will start thinking about changing the leadership in Austin.

But that’s not all. As everyone knows, the Hispanic population is growing quite rapidly in Texas and, for a while, it was thought Hispanics would automatically vote Democratic. The last election proved that was not true. Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott won slightly more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote and no Democrat is going to win Texas while Republicans are winning 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. (It didn’t help Democrats that the reputation of their nominee, Wendy Davis, was centered largely on her pro-choice stance which is not all that popular with Hispanics, most of whom are Catholic.) For Democrats to have a chance to win in Texas, the Republican leadership is going to have to do something really, really stupid that will result in angering the Texas Hispanic population to the point where they will be taking to the streets as in the civil rights protests of the 1960s. Massive deportations, stripping those living here legally of their citizenship, repealing the Dream Act — something along those lines.

And finally, for the Republicans to lose, they must nominate a real doofus to head up the ticket. I’m talking about an idiot of the first order, someone like this guy, perhaps even worse.

And if there’s that perfect storm — when all three of those scenarios come together at one time — Democrats just might have a chance to win a statewide election in Texas.

This Week’s DVD Releases

(Click on the DVD title to see the trailer)

The Wind Rises ***½ Directed by Hayo Miyazaki. A look at the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japanese fighter planes during World War II. The grim subtext of The Wind Rises goes largely unacknowledged, leading to a gaping hole in this otherwise beautifully realized narrative that celebrates the power of curiosity as a motivating force.

22 Jump Street *** Directed by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller. Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube. Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum) go undercover as college students to crack a fraternity crime ring. There are certainly a lot of actors who can match Hill and Tatum as comic actors, but it’s the oddball connection between these two that makes for a very entertaining couple of hours. Be sure to sit through the closing credits, which imagine all sorts of Jump Street sequels to come.

If I Stay ** Directed by R.J. Cutter. Chloë Grace Moretz, Mereille Enos, Joshua Leonard, Stacy Keach. While trying to choose between love and a musical career, 17-year-old Mia Hall finds her life upended by a tragic car crash that puts her in a coma. If I Stay never bothers to go after authenticity when there’s a cliché hovering nearby. That may not be enough of a drawback to prevent teenagers from renting the movie in droves, but they certainly deserve better.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For ** Directed by Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez. Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin. Cornering the market on sex and blackmail, Dwight McCarthy (Owen) matches rich men with prostitutes before snapping their photographs and selling the pictures to their wives, but he’d give anything to go legit. In just about every way, the film is an inferior sequel — dumber, flatter, lacking even the barbaric extremity of its predecessor. Where’s a flesh-eating Elijah Wood when you need him?

Into the Storm Directed by Steven Quayle. When a wave of powerful tornadoes bears down on the town of Silverton, a band of high school students tries to capture the destruction on videotape. When you’re pining for Bill Paxton and the relative emotional realism of Twister, you know you’re in trouble.

And So It Goes Directed by Rob Reiner. Michael Douglas, Diane Keaton, Sterling Jerins, Frances Sternhagen. A self-absorbed realtor enlists the help of his neighbor when he’s suddenly left in charge of the granddaughter he never knew existed until his estranged son drops her off at his home. Reiner assembles a square meal of rom-com pleasure points, but it’s bland, by-the-numbers and not particularly memorable.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Boyhood" appears to be Oscar favorite

From what I have learned talking to those who either vote for the Oscars or are close to the process, Richard Linklater's Boyhood seems to be a runaway choice for this year's best picture award. In declining order, here's how those folks see the best picture contest:
1. Boyhood
2. The Imitation Game
3.  Birdman
4.  The Theory of Everything
5.  Foxcatcher
6.  Selma
7.  Gone Girl
8.  Unbroken
9.  Interstellar
10. Whiplash

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 8-1 (3)
2.  Mississippi State 9-0 (2)
3.  Oregon 9-1 (5)
4.  TCU 8-1 (7)
5.  Mississippi 8-2 (4)
6.  Auburn 7-2 (1)
7.  Florida State 9-0 (6)
8.  Baylor 8-1 (12)
9.  Ohio State 8-1 (15)
10. Arizona State 8-1 (16)
11. Georgia 7-2 (17)
12. LSU 7-3 (9)
13. UCLA 8-2 (18)
14. Kansas State 7-2 (8)
15. Nebraska 8-1 (14)
16. Michigan State 7-2 (11)
17. Oklahoma 6-3 (10)
18. Clemson 7-2 (19)
19. Notre Dame 7-2 (13)
20. Marshall 9-0 (22)
21. Wisconsin 7-2 (21)
22. Texas A&M 7-3 (NR)
23. Arizona 7-2 (23)
24. Georgia Tech 8-2 (NR)
25. USC 6-3 (24)
Dropped out: West Virginia (20), Utah (25)

Monday, November 10, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases



(Click on the title to see the trailer)
Abuse of Weakness *** Directed by Catherine Breillat. Isabelle Huppert. A stroke-afflicted filmmaker (Huppert) is manipulated by a notorious con man. Another fascinating entry in the director’s ongoing exploration of the sadistic and masochistic facets of human behavior.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 *** Directed by Dean DeBois. Jay Baruchel, Kristen Wiig, America Ferrera, Kit Harington, Gerard Butler, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, T.J. Miller, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Djimon Hounsou. When Hiccup and Toothless discover an ice cave that is home to hundreds of new wild dragons and the mysterious Dragon Rider, the two friends find themselves at the center of a battle to protect the peace. At times terrifying and too tough for tinies, this is nevertheless a triumphant sequel that puts its faith in Hiccup and Toothless to find a way through dark times for man and dragon. Until we all get our own dragon to go flying with, the result is a story sufficiently thrilling to have us all airborne.

Happy Christmas *** Directed by Joe Swanberg. Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey. After splitting up with her boyfriend just before the holidays, a young woman moves in with her older brother and his family. But as she tries to climb out of her rut and start over, her self-destructive behavior gets in the way. It’s not always pretty, and it’s not always exciting, but you genuinely don’t know from one moment to the next how these characters will behave.

Deepsea Challenge **½ Directed by James Cameron. Chronicles Cameron’s solo dive on March 26, 2012, as he pilots a submersible seven miles down to the lowest point of the Mariana Trench to gather data for scientific research. While Challenge makes for a pretty dull glimpse into the inner workings of the sea, it provides a fascinating look at the inner workings of Cameron, whose obsessive and demanding personality translated to movies like Titanic and Avatar.

Mood Indigo ** Directed by Michel Gondry. Wealthy, inventive bachelor Colin (Romain Duris) endeavors to find a cure for his lover Chloe (Audrey Tautou) after she’s diagnosed with an unusual illness caused by a flower growing in her lungs. No amount of imaginative trickery can fill the void of feeling at the movie’s center. Whimsy for whimsy’s sake is just too much to take.

Jersey Boys ** Directed by Clint Eastwood. John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Johnny Carrizzaro, Renée Marino, Mike Doyle, Christopher Walken. The story of four young men from the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey who came together to form the iconic 1960s rock group The Four Seasons. The singing talent is there, but Eastwood and writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise opt for a more realistic depiction of events. They transform Jersey Boys from jukebox musical it was on stage to movie biopic, exchanging one much-maligned genre for another.

Tammy Directed by Ben Falcone. Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, Mark Duplass, Dan Aykroyd, Kathy Bates. After losing her job and learning that her husband has been unfaithful, a woman hits the road with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother. Where 1991's Thelma & Louise was funny and action-filled, Tammy’s story is thin, cringe-inducing and, worst of all for a comedy, not funny. Jokes land with a thud and the pacing is leaden.

Let’s Be Cops * Directed by Luke Greenfield. Damon Wayans Jr., Jake Johnson, Rob Riggle, Nina Dobrev, James D’Arcy, Andy Garcia. When two pals show up at a costume party dressed as cops, they end up being mistaken for the real thing and get drawn into a bona-fide crime drama. The screenplay co-written by Nicholas Thomas and Greenfield fails to mine the potentially humorous premise for the necessary laughs, with nearly all of the gags falling thuddingly flat.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Voter participation: a lesson for Dallas

For the last couple of days I have been inundated by analyses from pundits on why voters cast their ballots the way they did on Tuesday. But there’s another analysis I haven’t seen that I would welcome and would find even more interesting.

U.S. citizens don’t vote and I have absolutely no idea why that’s so. Of course, there’s always going to be a lot of people who don’t take part in the political process in any form whatsoever. That’s their prerogative. But what mystifies me is that two thirds of Americans who devote the time and energy to register to vote never show up to the polls. Why? That’s what I want to know.

For Dallas municipal elections it’s even worse. Much worse. Last year, only 7 percent — 7 percent — of the city’s registered voters took the time to select a candidate to represent them on the city council. That’s disgraceful. But in 2011, when the city was picking a new mayor as well as council representatives, only 13 percent voted.

In Austin this year, the voter turnout for the city council election was 40 percent of the registered voters. Not great, but still significantly better than the Dallas numbers. In 2010 it was 38 percent in Austin, more than double the 15 percent that voted in Dallas’ 2009 elections. In 2006, it was 40 percent in Austin, 13 percent for the comparable election in Dallas.

That disparity I can explain quite easily because in 2012, only 11 percent of eligible Austin voters participated in the city council election process. The difference? That 2012 election was held in May, the others were held as part of the November general election ballot.

Dallas, for some reason, also holds its municipal elections in May. The argument for this that I’ve heard is that Dallas city council candidates don’t want their elections to be buried beneath all the statewide and nationwide choices that they would have to share the ballot with. What a crock. Talk about basic insecurity.

When Dallas was holding a series of public hearings on proposed changes to the city charter earlier this year I testified at one of them and one of my recommendations was to move Dallas city elections from May to November to attract greater voter participation. C’mon, 7 percent is a travesty that should make Dallas ashamed.

But I would still want to know why most of the nation’s registered voters don’t bother to vote. Would love for someone to take up that issue.

Help for the middle class



In 2008, Time magazine named Robert Reich one of the 10 best cabinet members of the century (he was Secretary of Labor during President Bill Clinton's first term). He has a list of credentials too long for me to list in this space but, if you want to check him out, you can learn all about him here.

This is his analysis of Tuesday's election and it makes a lot of sense to me:

"If you want a single reason for why Democrats lost big Tuesday it’s this: Median family income continues to drop, the first "recovery" when this has occurred. Meanwhile, all the economic gains are going to the richest Americans. If the Republicans think they can reverse this through their supply-side, trickle-down, fiscal austerity policies, they’re profoundly mistaken. The public will soon discover this. But if the Democrats believe they can reverse it simply by raising taxes on the rich and redistributing to everyone else, they are mistaken, too.

"We need to raise the minimum wage, invest in education and infrastructure, lift the cap on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes, resurrect Glass-Steagall and limit the size of the banks, make it easier for low-wage workers to unionize, raise taxes on corporations with high ratios of CEO pay to average worker pay, and much more. In other words, we need an agenda for shared prosperity. Over the next two years the Democrats have an opportunity to advance one. If they fail to do so, we’ll need a new opposition party that represents the interests of the vast majority."

Just though I'd pass it along.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Dump the most boring play in basketball

During last night’s telecast of the NBA game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors, TNT analyst and former coach Jeff Van Gundy suggested eliminating the most boring play in basketball: the free throw.

The more I think about his idea the better I like it, although I’m not in favor of what he would replace the free throw with. His suggestion would be that after the first foul is called on each team, the opposing team would get one free throw. If the player converts, his team gets three points. If not, then, of course, nothing. After that, no more free throws after fouls.

I favor his idea of eliminating the free throw because, yes, it is basketball’s least exciting play and eliminating it would speed up the game. However, what I would recommend is that after every foul. the team that is fouled is awarded one point and the ball out of bounds. That would also quickly eliminate the hack-a-player tactics we see at the end of many NBA games that make the final few minutes seem like an eternity.

Waddya think?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Auburn 7-1 (4)
2.  Mississippi State 8-0 (1)
3.  Alabama 7-1 (3)
4.  Mississippi 7-2 (2)
5.  Oregon 8-1 (7)
6.  Florida State 8-0 (5)
7.  TCU 7-1 (8)
8.  Kansas State 7-1 (11)
9.  LSU 7-2 (9)
10. Oklahoma 6-2 (14)
11. Michigan State 7-1 (10)
12. Baylor 7-1 (15)
13. Ohio State 7-1 (16)
14. Notre Dame 7-1 (12)
15. Nebraska 8-1 (13)
16. Arizona State 7-1 (18)
17. UCLA 7-2 (23)
18. Georgia 6-2 (6)
19. Clemson 6-2 (17)
20. West Virginia 6-3 (21)
21. Marshall 8-0 (20)
22. Wisconsin 6-2 (NR)
23. USC 6-3 (24)
24. Arizona 6-2 (19)
25. Utah 6-2 (22)
Dropped out: Texas A&M (25)

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Precedent of the United States


An interesting historical note: In my lifetime, there have been only four U.S. presidents to serve two full terms: Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In the sixth year of the presidency of each of the aformentioned presidents, their opposition party gained control of both the House and the Senate.

Just saying.

What’s at stake in tomorrow’s election? Only the future of life as we know it on this planet


The only way we can preserve sustainable life on this planet we call home is to reduce greenhouse emissions to absolute zero sometime in this century. That’s the headline from a report issued yesterday by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So how do we achieve that goal? Simple: Eliminate the burning of fossil fuels.

Simple to say, but certainly not simple to do. The reason why eliminating the burning of fossil fuels is impossible is because, obviously, fossil fuels are the product of the massive oil and gas companies who actually run things here on Earth. No it’s not elected officials: Most of them – particularly Republican office holders in the United States — are merely puppets controlled by the oil and gas industry. The industry has bought them. The industry owns them. They will do and they will vote as instructed by the industry. In fact, if Republicans win control of the U.S. Senate in tomorrow’s election, the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will be Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe. Here is his reaction to the IPCC’s report, a report, incidentally, supported by 97 percent of the scientific community, according to the NASA website Global Climate Change:

Sen. Jim Inhofe
"The idea that our advanced industrialized economy would ever have zero carbon emissions is beyond extreme and further proof that the IPCC is nothing more than a front for the environmental left. It comes as no surprise that the IPCC is again advocating for the implementation of extreme climate change regulations that will cripple the global economy and send energy prices skyrocketing. The United States is in the midst of an energy renaissance that has the potential to bring about American energy independence, which would strengthen our national security and energy reliability for generations into the future. At a time of economic instability and increased threats to American interests, the IPCC’s report is little more than high hopes from the environmental left."

Like I said: a puppet for the oil and gas industry, whose trying to switch the subject of the debate from renewable power sources to high cost of oil and gas. This is the same clown who said we don’t need to be concerned about glaciers melting because, like ice melting in a glass of liquid, it simply displaces the ice, so the oceans won’t really rise. What the idiot doesn’t realize is that the ice being talked about is ice from land, not already in the water — try adding a lot more ice cubes to that glass of liquid and see what happens.

The IPCC was created more than a quarter of a century ago to assess global warming and its impact. Its latest report reviews 30,000 climate-change studies that establish with 95 percent certainty that most of the warming since the 1950s is man-made.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett
Of course, here in Texas, there is little we can do to stop the flow of red. A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide race in Texas in 20 years and that certainly won’t change tomorrow. I recently relocated from Dallas to Central Texas where my U.S. Representative, at least, is a progressive thinker and also a former associate from my days at the University of Texas, Lloyd Doggett. (Doggett was president of the UT student body which also made him head of student publications when I was the assistant managing editor of the university’s daily newspaper. We had numerous encounters in those roles.)

Wendy Davis
In Texas, the magic number progressives will be looking at is 42.3. That’s the percentage of the total votes won by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White in 2010. This year the Democratic standard bearer is, of course, Wendy Davis, who is seen, by some (I am not among those) as the straw horse for an eventual Democratic takeover of the state. If this is true, she must win more than 42.3 percent of the vote. I would say, in order for her campaign to be called "successful," she needs to win at least 45 percent. If she wins less than 42.3 percent, her campaign will go down as an unmitigated disaster and a huge setback for Democrats’ hopes here in Texas, especially when you consider all the attention — even outside of Texas — Davis’s campaign has received. She is considered more than just a candidate by many; she has been elevated to "folk hero" status. It will also be interesting to see if she can collect significantly more than the 2.1 million votes White received four years ago. I sincerely hope she does, but I’m certainly not willing to wager anything of value on the possibility.

Austin's new 10 member city council districts
As a Dallas transplant as well as a significant player in the city’s transition from an at-large city council election system to a single-member district system, it’s fascinating to watch as Austin holds its first city election in which all 10 city council members will be elected from individual districts, with a mayor, of course, being the one at-large candidate. It’s interesting because in Dallas, where African Americans city council representatives fight tooth-and-nail to preserve four black city council districts, even though it could be argued the numbers no longer support that, in Austin only one district is considered winnable by an African American candidate and even in that district African Americans comprise only 35 percent of the voting age population. It would be enough to drive Dallas City Council members Dwaine Caraway, Carolyn Davis, Tennell Atkins and probably even Vonciel Hill over the edge. The black population here is quite evenly dispersed throughout all sections of the city because Austin leaders did not practice the systems of overt racism that resulted in the racially split North-South Dallas.

I will also give Austin credit for holding its municipal elections in November, which, of course, will mean more voter interest and a higher voter turnout than municipal elections in Dallas, which are held in May, when no other elections that might generate increased voter participation are on the ballot. On the other hand, I will give Dallas credit for doing rail right.

Austin voters will decide tomorrow if they want a light rail system in the city. I am a major proponent of mass transportation, especially in urban areas, but I have yet to make up my mind on Austin’s proposal. Dallas transportation visionaries (hopefully that’s not an oxymoron) wisely saw mass transportation as a regional issue and created, though a public referendum, a regional transportation authority that included 13 other municipalities in addition to Dallas. Plus, it isn’t just a light rail service: it operates buses, commuter rail and HOV lanes. DART is its own regulatory body. It is financed through sales taxes administered by all member cities.

Austin's proposed rail line
Austin is going the light rail route on its own, with a proposal for only one line entirely within the city limits of Austin. It would be located along a north-south line just west of Interstate 35 until it crosses the Colorado river south of downtown where it would veer off to the southeast. One of the arguments against the rail proposal is that there is not that much rider ship along that corridor, that it should be located more to the west where more commercial areas are located. The problem is advocates agree with that assessment, but counter with the argument that "someday there will be more rider ship along the proposed route." I am not convinced that’s a compelling argument, but more than anything else I am chagrined that the rail proponents are thinking only locally and not regionally, especially when such neighborhood cities as Round Rock, Cedar Park, Kyle (my new home) and San Marcos (the fastest growing city in the United States the last two years) are growing as fast as they are. They need to be included in any transportation plan and Austin is shutting them out. In addition, the transportation system will be completely controlled by city government and will be funded by increased property taxes and a hoped-for windfall from the federal government (which probably won’t come if Republicans gain control of the Senate tomorrow).

I moved down here less than a month ago to retire close to the home of my son and granddaughter and I’m not going to live long enough the effects of mass transportation plans in Austin, let alone global climate change. (Neither are the heads of the oil and gas industries which is why they don’t give a damn if they destroy the planet – just as long as they continue to make their obscene profits). So I guess I shouldn’t be concerned about these things, but as the scorpion said to the frog, "It’s my nature." And if you don’t know what I mean by that last statement, rent and see the marvelous film The Crying Game, which, incidentally, a lot of us may be playing (the game, not the movie) this time tomorrow.

This Week’s DVD Releases


A Most Wanted Man *** Directed by Anton Corbijn. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright. A half-Russian, half-Chechen man, brutalized by torture, arrives in Hamburg, where he seeks a British banker’s help in recovering his father’s estate. While the tension is sometimes muted, this is more than a procedural round of spy games. The deliberately paced but riveting film is made all the better because of Hoffman’s breathtakingly nuanced portrayal.

Land Ho! *** Directed by Aaron Katz, Martha Stephens. In a bid to gain life perspective, retired Mitch (Early Lynn Nelson) persuades his ex-brother-in-law (Paul Eenhoorn) to join him on a journey through the frigid landscapes of Iceland. A series of picaresque adventures in a notably picturesque land. Is it enough to sustain anything resembling dramatic momentum? For a while it isn’t, but then, unexpectedly, it is.

The One I Love *** Directed by Charlie McDowell. Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Ted Danson. Confronted with the potential end of their marriage, Ethan and Sophie take off for a weekend together, hoping to negotiate their future. When they reach their idyllic destination, however, the couple strolls into a bizarre new brand of trouble. Unfortunately, someone (screenwriter Justin Lader, perhaps?) needed to improvise some kind of satisfying denouement because the film’s third act just collapses in on itself. The One I Love is imaginative and provocative until it isn’t.

Maleficent **½ Directed by Robert Stromberg. Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharito Copley, Sam Riley, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville. A vengeful fairy is driven to curse an infant princess, only to discover that the child may be the one person who can restore peace to their troubled land. It’s a dazzling showcase of fantasy-based filmmaking in the 21st century that also manages a feeble attempt at injecting feminist politics into an antiquated narrative. Yet its eventual climax strains from the obviousness of these efforts.

A Five-Star Life **½ Directed by Maria Sole Tognazzi. Forty-something Irene (Margherita Buy) has a dream job that makes her life easy: she is a luxury hotel inspector and her work gets carried out in a wonderful ever-renewed setting, from Paris to Gstaad to Berlin to Morocco to China. Tognazzi’s ultra-sedate romantic comedy is full of aesthetic sophistication and luxurious ambiance, but its pleasures are all secondhand, and the whole endeavor is too starved of incident to really stick in the memory.

Planes: Fire & Rescue ** Directed by Roberts Gannaway. Dane Cook, Julie Bowen. When Dusty learns that his engine is damaged and he may never race again, he joins a forest fire and rescue unit to be trained as a firefighter. Beautiful to look at, this is nothing more than a Little Engine That Could story refitted to accommodate aerial action and therefore unlikely to engage the active interest of anyone above the age of about 8, or 10 at the most.

Hercules ** Directed by Brett Ratner. Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Tobias Santelmann, Joseph Fiennes, Peter Mullan, John Hurt. Having endured his legendary twelve labors, Hercules, the Greek demigod, has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when the King of Thrace and his daughter seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord. Strap on your swordbelt, buckle your sandals and oil up your rippling six-pack, because here comes yet another interminable, CGI-drenched mythic mish-mash with far more money than brain cells.

Step Up: All In ** Directed by Trish Sie. Competitors gather in Las Vegas for the ultimate dance-off, including champions from the previous films. Even if the big numbers in Step Up All In don’t always hit the heights of its immediate predecessors, there are enough exultant moments – during the crew battles or Sean and Andie’s pas de deux on a carnival ride — to tide you over until the inevitable Part Six.

The Christmas Candle Directed by John Stephenson. Hans Matheson, Samantha Barks, Lesley Manville, Sylvester McCoy, Susan Boyle, John Hannah. In the village of Gladbury, it’s believed that every 25 years an angel comes on Christmas Eve bearing a miracle for one of the residents. But the arrival of a new minister with fresh ideas threatens to extinguish the age-old tradition. The whole thing is sentimental corn, which isn’t bad if it’s handled with conviction and sincerity. But the direction by Stephenson (better known for special effects than directing) is resolutely stiff and hollow. That’s murder for a movie dealing with miracles.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Mississippi State 7-0 (2)
2.  Mississippi 7-1 (1)
3.  Alabama 7-1 (3)
4.  Auburn 6-1 (4)
5.  Florida State 7-0 (5)
6.  Georgia 6-1 (6)
7.  Oregon 7-1 (7)
8.  TCU 6-1 (8)
9.  LSU 7-2 (16)
10. Michigan State 7-1 (9)
11. Kansas State 6-1 (13)
12. Notre Dame 6-1 (10)
13. Nebraska 7-1 (15)
14. Oklahoma 5-2 (12)
15. Baylor 6-1 (11)
16. Ohio State 6-1 (14)
17. Clemson 6-2 (17)
18. Arizona State 6-1 (22)
19. Arizona 6-1 (20)
20. West Virginia 6-2 (24)
21. Marshall 8-0 (18)
22. Utah 6-1 (23)
23. UCLA 6-2 (19)
24. USC 5-3 (21)
25. Texas A&M 5-3 (25)

Monday, October 27, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


Begin Again **½ Directed by John Carney. Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, Cee Lo Green, Catherine Keener. A chance encounter between a disgraced music-business executive and a young singer-songwriter new to Manhattan turns into a promising collaboration between the two talents. It may not always swing, but it makes up for that in sincerity and a welcome willingness to ambush expectations.

Life of Crime **½ Directed by Daniel Schecter. Jenifer Anistton, Mos Def, Isla Fisher, Will Forte, Mark Boone Junior, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes. After kidnapping a rich property developer’s wife and holding her for ransom, two small time crooks discover their hostage’s philandering husband is in no rush to free her from captivity. Mostly, it’s fine. The acting is fine. The writing is fine. The story is fine. There are a few laughs. And that should be fine enough. But with material as rich as Elmore Leonard’s serving as the foundation, just fine is a disappointment.

Wish I Was Here ** Directed by Zach Braff. Zach Braff, Donald Faison, Josh Gad, Pierce Gagnon, Ashley Greene, Kate Hudson, Joey King, Jim Parsons, Mandy Patinkin. With his acting career moribund, Aidan Bloom (Braff) steers a new tack in life, taking over his children’s education when private school becomes too costly. Finding much to learn as well as teach, Aidan develops his own unique curriculum for the kids. It’s not a total disaster, but the tricky tone seems like it needed more time in the editing room to focus its story and trim some of the extraneous threads.

Deliver Us From Evil ** Directed by Scott Derrickson. Eric Bana, Olivia Munn, Edgar Ramirez. While investigating a bizarre case, a New York City police officer meets a priest who convinces him the incident is related to demonic possession, and the two men team up to ferret out the truth. You’ll be jolted a couple of times, but these aren’t scares that will stay with you. How about retiring "based on a true story" in favor of "based on a good story"?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A tribute to a great band too few people remember these days

I remember back in the early to mid-1970s hanging out with my brother in the bars in Austin. Usually we'd hit a bar, order a couple of beers and after the live music started we'd quietly walk out and head for another bar. Contrary to popular belief, most of the live music scene in Austin on an average night just wasn't all that good. We walked into one bar one night and saw a bunch of bizarre-looking dudes setting up on the stage, but really paid them little attention. Just another typical Austin band. We ordered our beers and continued with our matter-of-life-and-death conversation. Then these guys started playing, a Colombian cumbia ("Catagenera," the last video in this set). My brother and I stopped talking, looked at each other with the exact same thought in our heads ("Is this music coming from those rag-tag dudes we saw congregating on the stage moments before? Naw It couldn't be.") But it was and we were hooked.

The name of that band was Balcones Fault and I will dare anyone to name a better band to come out of Austin during that time in the 1970s. There might have been a handful just as good -- Plum Nelly (and its direct descendant, Mother of Pearl) and Greezy Wheels immediately come to mind -- but none better.

Balcones Fault played a handful of shows in Dallas. At one obviously meaningful one for me, at Faces on Cedar Springs, I met the woman who would become the mother of my son. But perhaps they were best known for a series of "Full Moon Concerts" they played at Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters. Late in the decade they went out to California to record an album which simply did not capture the magic of the band.

This was a band that was way ahead of its time. If it had been born during the first days of the music video in the early 1980s, I'm convinced Balcones Fault would have been a national success, not just a Texas one. It wasn't enough to hear Balcones Fault, you had to see them.

I recently retired and relocated from Dallas to Kyle in Central Texas (18 miles from my son and granddaughter vs. 234 miles away when I lived in the forgotten triangle of Northeast Dallas) and through some strange series of events I have quickly reconnected with two great musician friends from that era of the 1970s, Ernie Gammage (who sometimes back then and even to this day performed under the name of Ernie Sky) from Plum Nelly and Mother of Pearl and Fletcher Clark from Balcones Fault. Both are still heavily involved in music and I am so delighted to be back in their orbit.

To give you a small idea of what Fletcher was like back in those mid-70s days, check out this Balcones Fault video.

That's Fletcher singing lead and sermonizing on that Balcones Fault show-stopper. But to really get just a small taste of the variety of music styles this amazing band could capture, I've included a couple more samples. Check 'em out and then wish you were there, back in the heyday of Balcones Fault.
 
 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis

1.  Mississippi 7-0 (1)
2.  Mississippi State 6-0 (2)
3.  Auburn 5-1 (3)
4.  Alabama 6-1 (6)
5.  Florida State 7-0 (5)
6.  Georgia 6-1 (8)
7.  Oregon 6-1 (10)
8.  TCU 5-1 (11)
9.  Michigan State 6-1 (12)
10. Notre Dame 6-1 (9)
11. Oklahoma 5-2 (7)
12. Baylor 6-1 (4)
13. Kansas State 5-1 (17)
14. Ohio State 5-1 (22)
15. Nebraska 6-1 (16)
16. LSU 6-2 (14)
17. Clemson 5-2 (15)
18. Marshall 7-0 (21)
19. UCLA 5-2 (19)
20. Arizona 5-1 (20)
21. USC 5-2 (18)
22. Arizona State 5-1 (NR)
23. Utah 5-1 (25)
24. West Virginia 5-2 (NR)
25. Texas A&M 5-3 (13)
Dropped out: Oklahoma State (23), Stanford (24),

Monday, October 20, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases

With this week’s list, I am converting from a 5-star rating system to the more universally used 4-star one.

Snowpiercer ***½ Directed by Joon-ho Bong. Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Alison Pill, Ed Harris. The Earth’s remaining inhabitants are confined to a single train circling the globe as revolution brews among the class-divided cars. A rare hybrid that perfectly blends the dazzle of a futuristic action thriller with the intellectual substance of an art film.

A Coffee in Berlin **½ Directed by Jan Ole Gerster. Nothing seems to go right for Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling): His girlfriend dumps him, he loses his driver’s license, and his father cuts him off financially. With nothing else to do, he wanders around Berlin, crossing paths with a slew of eccentric characters. A snappy, quirky German indie that will thrill fans of early Jim Jarmusch.

The Fluffy Movie **½ Directed by Manny Rodriguez. A comedy concert film that captures the on-stage performance and inspirational success story of Gabriel "Fluffy" Iglesias. Inherently funny, with a terrific sense of timing, an amazing gift for mimicry, and an ability to perfectly imitate all kinds of everyday sounds, Iglesias is always charming and frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

Earth to Echo **½ Directed by Dave Green. After receiving a bizarre series of encrypted messages, a group of kids embark on an adventure with an alien who needs their help. Passable family entertainment, neither unforgettable nor particularly bad.

The Purge: Anarchy ** Directed by James DeMonaco. A young couple works to survive on the streets after their car breaks down right as the annual purge commences. The new film pokes heavyhanded fun at extreme conservatives and has a "power to the people" sub-theme, but it’s full of ultra-violence and is dragged down by standard scare tactics, thin characters and the absurdities of the premise.

Life After Beth ** Directed by Jeff Baena. Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser. A young man’s recently deceased girlfriend mysteriously returns from the dead, but he slowly realizes she is not the way he remembered her. This dark comedy has a lot of promise for about half its length. Then, unfortunately, it settles into the mundane zombie genre picture that it seems doomed to be.

Sex Tape Directed by Jake Kasdan. Cameron Diaz, Jason Segel, Robb Corddry, Ellie Kemer. Rob Lowe, Jack Black. A married couple wake up to discover that the sex tape they made the evening before has gone missing, leading to a frantic search for its whereabouts. The cinematic equivalent of herpes, Sex Tape is an uncomfortable embarrassment to raunchy comedies everywhere. Fortunately, no medication is required after being exposed to it: The effects are not permanent, only painful.