Monday, April 21, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


The Trials of Muhammad Ali *** Directed by Bill Siegel. Covers Ali’s battle to overturn a five-year prison sentence for refusing U.S. military service in Vietnam. The film falls short of explaining Ali, who, like many outspoken individuals, can stubbornly repel scrutiny, nor will it pacify the many who opposed his conscientious objections. But it also underlines one enduring quality: namely, that he probably couldn’t care less what people think.

Bettie Page Reveals All *** Directed by Mark Mori. The pinup model and cult icon recounts the true story of how her free expression overcame government witch-hunts to help launch America’s sexual revolution. Why does the movie waste so much time on empty adoration from celebrity fans and skim past the significant tragedies that contributed to her complex life? Parental neglect, sexual assault, severe mental illness — all of these factors shaped the woman Page became. But perhaps, even today, no one wants to consider the sadness behind her 1,000-watt smile.

Big Bad Wolves ** Directed by Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado. A vigilante cop joins forces with the father of a murder victim to interrogate the main suspect in a series of brutal child homicides and to mete out their own version of justice. Keshales and Papushado, the two-man writer-director team, are swinging at serious targets here, but their point soon wears itself out, and what remains is schlock with airs and tired black humor.

Barefoot * Directed by Andrew Fleming. The black sheep son (Scott Speedman) of a wealthy family meets a young psychiatric patient (Evan Rachel Wood) who’s been raised in isolation her entire life and takes her home for his brother’s wedding. It’s dispiriting enough that we’re still getting movies about the cute side of mental illness, but to turn someone rendered childlike by abusive trauma into desirable girlfriend material — and sporting cast-off stripper attire to boot — is more than a little creepy.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Saturday night in Virginia Beach


The Wall by Bruce Springsteen

Cigarettes and a bottle of beer
This poem I wrote for you
This black stone and these hard tears
Are all I've got left now of you
I remember you in your Marine uniform laughing
Laughing that you're shipping out probably
I read Robert McNamara says he's sorry

You and your boots and black t-shirt
Ah Billy you looked so bad
Ya, you and your rock and roll band
Was the best thing this shit town ever had
Now the man who put you here
He feeds his family in rich dining halls
And apology and forgiveness have no place here at all
At the wall

I'm sorry I missed you last year
I couldn't find no one to drive me
If your eyes could cut through that black stone
Tell me would they recognize me?
For the living, time must be served
Life goes on
Cigarettes and a bottle of beer
Skin on black stone

High School pictures, paper flowers
Ribbon, red as the blood
Ya, as the blood you spilled
In the Central Highlands mud
Now the limousines rush down Pennsylvania Boulevard
As the rain falls
And apology and forgiveness have no place here at all

This Week’s DVD Releases


The Invisible Woman **** Directed by Ralph Fiennes. At the height of his career, Charles Dickens (Fiennes) meets a younger woman (Felicity Jones) who becomes his secret lover until his death.Gives us a plausible image of the great man in the fullness of his celebrity, and an affecting portrait of the woman who lived much of her life in his shadow. With Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander.

Philomena ***½ Directed by Stephen Frears. A world-weary political journalist (Steve Coogan) picks up the story of a woman’s (Judi Dench) search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent. Turns out to be a subtly told tale of tragedy and redemption with much of the sentimental payoff you’re expecting but several intriguing plot twists along the way. Compelling, poignant and gently funny.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty *** Directed by Ben Stiller. A day-dreamer (Stiller) escapes his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of fantasies filled with heroism, romance and action. This is a film about acting out our dreams, but Stiller never quite shows us the soul of his dreamer.

Date and Switch **½ Directed by Chris Nelson. Two guys (Nicholas Braun, Hunter Cope) who make a pact to lose their virginity before prom find their friendship tested when one of them comes out of the closet. A plucky step in the right direction for diversity in teen comedies, but it lacks the extra oomph to stand on its own merits. With Dakota Johnson, Zach Cregger.

Great Expectations **½ Directed by Mike Newell. A humble orphan suddenly becomes a gentleman with the help of an unknown benefactor. Contains enough characters and subplots for three movies. The novel has almost been suffocated by Newell and screenwriter David Nicholls in an effort to get everything in. With Jeremy Irvine, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Holliday Grainger.

Black Nativity ** Directed by Kasi Lemmons. A street-wise teen from Baltimore who has been raised by a single mother travels to New York City to spend the Christmas holiday with his estranged relatives. Many of the transitions between narrative and music are rough. The temptations of the street, all too real in the real world, feel forced. Confrontations become clichés. The substance of human motivation is missing. And thus the heart never beats as it should. With Forrest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyree Gibson, Jacob Latimore, Mary J. Blige, Naser Jones, Jennifer Hudson.

Better Living Through Chemistry ** Directed by Geoff Moore, David Posamentier. A strait-laced pharmacist’s uneventful life spirals out of control when he starts an affair with a trophy-wife customer who takes him on a joyride involving sex, drugs and possibly murder. The unexpected chemistry between Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde helps balance this sour noir comedy. With Michelle Monaghan, Ray Liotta, Jane Fonda.

Ride Along ** Directed by Tim Story. Fast-talking security guard Ben (Kevin Hart) joins his cop brother-in-law James (Ice Cube) on a 24-hour patrol of Atlanta in order to prove himself worthy of marrying Angela (Tiksa Sumpter), James’ sister. This rote buddy-cop action comedy is instantly forgettable. We’ve seen it all before, and worse than that, we’ve seen it done far better in films ranging from last year’s The Heat to 80s classics such as Midnight Run and Lethal Weapon.

The Nut Job Directed by Peter Lepeniotes. An incorrigibly self-serving exiled squirrel finds himself helping his former park brethren raid a nut store to survive. This dead-on-arrival ‘toon is some of the worst p.r. for rodents since bubonic plague hit medieval Europe.

Copperhead * Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. An upstate New York family is torn apart during the American Civil War. Maxwell’s film, from beginning to end, exudes all the excitement of a textbook history lesson.

Monday, April 7, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug *** Directed by Peter Jackson. The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug. Some of the dwarves have nice individual moments, namely Balin (Ken Stott), Bofur (James Nesbitt), and Kili (Aidan Turner), and Gandalf gets to throw some potent magic around at Dol Guldur. But other than that (and the dragon itself), The Desolation of Smaug turns to be more of too much of a good thing.

August: Osage County **½ Directed by John Wells. A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them. It’s not so much a mangled movie as it is an unfulfilled, forgettable one: unnecessary for anyone who’s seen the play, yet sufficiently watered-down that newcomers won’t be able to tell what all the fuss was about. With Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones ** Directed by Christopher Landon. Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) begins experiencing a number of disturbing and unexplainable things after the death of his neighbor. As ever with this series, the shocks are cheap but effective, and the shaky-cam aesthetic adds an unsettling layer of realism (if you’re willing to overlook the innate ridiculousness of the film-everything concept).

Grudge Match ** Directed by Peter Segal. A pair of aging boxing rivals (Sylvester Stallone, Robert DeNiro) are coaxed out of retirement to fight one final bout, 30 years after their last match. Essentially recasting Grumpy Old Men with the senescent specters of Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta, the result is sporadically amusing, with some chucklesome sight gags and crowdpleasing supporting turns from Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, yet its all so overcooked that it defeats its own purpose.

Justin Bieber’s Believe * Directed by Jon M. Chu. A backstage and on-stage look at Justin Bieber during his rise to stardom. Strictly for the Beliebers.

Nurse * Directed by Douglas Aarniokoski. By day Abby Russell is a dedicated nurse, someone you wouldn’t hesitate to trust your life with. But by night, she lures cheating men to their brutal deaths. Co-writer and director Aarniokoski’s clunky, crude blotch of prurience and bloodletting is too self-satisfied with its wink-wink naughtiness to be either fun-dumb or scary-sexy.

Back in the Day (no stars) Directed by Michael Rosenbaum. Jim Owens (Rosenbaum) heads home for his high school reunion. In an attempt to relive the glory days with his boys and explore an old romance, he nearly destroys his hometown and friendships. Cloying and smug when it’s not being unfunny and crass, this film hits lows with a frequency that suggests a world-class sharp shooter or free-throw king.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Something to brighten an otherwise dreary day

Just ran across this by accident and it knocked me out -- Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris collaborating on a Lou Reed/Velvet Underground song. I didn't even know it existed before today.

Monday, March 31, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues *** Directed by Adam McKay. With the 70s behind him, San Diego’s top rated newsman, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), returns to take New York’s first 24-hour news channel by storm. The buffoonery goes epic in this sillier than silly sequel, a broad, down and dirty comedy overfilled with funny people trying to one-up one another on the set in the classic "best line wins" school of comic improvisation. With Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Dylan Baker, James Marsden, Greg Kinnear, Kristen Wiig, Fred Willard, Harrison Ford.

At Middleton *** Directed by Adam Rogers. Two parents (Andy Garcia, Vera Farmiga) fall in love over the course of a single day while playing hooky from their children’s college tour. This is an almost completely inauthentic little romance that is so genuinely pleasant you’ll enjoy it anyway. Farmiga and Garcia have a chemistry that’s unassuming and sneaky, and the pleasure they get from each other’s company ultimately proves infectious.

The Pirate Fairy **½ Directed by Peggy Holmes. When a misunderstood dust-keeper fairy named Zarina steals Pixie Hollow’s all-important Blue Pixie Dust, and flies away to join forces with the pirates of Skull Rock, Tinker Bell and her fairy friends must return it to its rightful place. Holmes’ glittery romp offers plenty of pretty spectacles, but true flights of fancy are far too rare.

47 Ronin * Directed by Carl Rinsch. A band of samurai set out to avenge the death and dishonor of their master at the hands of a ruthless shogun. This botched vision accepts the warrior’s nobility at face value and sees the story merely as a springboard for high-flying action and CGI special effects. With Keanu Reeves.

The Bag Man * Directed by David Grovic. A criminal (John Cusack) bides his time at a seedy motel, waiting for his boss (Robert DeNiro) after killing several men and making away with a mystery bag. This blathery, misogynist indie from first-time director Grovic — which seems to be aiming for "Pulp Fiction" territory with its blend of crime, banter and the mysterious contents of a bag — falls far short, rife as it is with noir and gender clichés.

Monday, March 24, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


The Great Beauty **** Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Jep Gambardella (Tpmy Servillo) has seduced his way through the lavish nightlife of Rome for decades, but after his 65th birthday and a shock from the past, Jep looks past the nightclubs and parties to find a timeless landscape of absurd, exquisite beauty. Sorrentino collects scenes of superficial extravagance and eccentricity, then finds the deeper yearnings they conceal. An utterly ravishing portrait of listless luxuriance, a fantasy of decadent wealth and beauty. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2013.

The Past **** Directed by Asghar Fahardi. An Iranian man (Ali Mosaffa) deserts his French wife (Bérénice Bejo) and her two children to return to his homeland. Meanwhile, his wife starts up a new relationship, a reality her husband confronts upon his wife’s request for a divorce. This is just about as good as a relationship drama is ever going to get. The plot is teased out with deliberate grace, the performances are sublime and the revelations, even the most melodramatic, feel right and true. It’s big canvas stuff painted by a new master.

The Wolf of Wall Street ***½ Directed by Martin Scorsese. Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), from his rise to a wealthy stockbroker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption and the federal government. For all of its carnal frivolity, The Wolf of Wall Street lacks passion and purpose, qualities Scorsese, at his best, has in abundance. There’s no question about the efficacy of Scorsese’s filmmaking prowess, only that he never knows — or doesn’t care — to slow down and deepen the material. It does feature, however, DiCaprio’s most charismatic performance ever. With Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey.

The Punk Singer ***½ Directed by Sini Anderson. A look at the life of activist, musician, and cultural icon Kathleen Hanna, who formed the punk band Bikini Kill and pioneered the "riot grrrl" movement of the 1990s. The Punk Singer, like the best documentaries, captures more than just its subject, fascinating though she may be. Anderson manages to capture the feel of an era and the excitement surrounding a fresh feminist voice.

Odd Thomas ** Directed by Stephen Sommers. In a California desert town, a short-order cook with clairvoyant abilities encounters a mysterious man with a link to dark, threatening forces. Odd Thomas is a film that’s goes through the motions with too little character, style, or atmosphere to keep it engaging.

Delivery Man ** Directed by Ken Scott. An affable underachiever (Vince Vaughn) learns he’s fathered 533 children through anonymous donations to a fertility clinic 20 years ago. Now he must decide whether to come forward when 142 of them file a lawsuit to reveal his identity. Delivery Man may be a change of pace for Vaughn, but it’s the exact opposite for its creator Scott. Belonging to the Funny Games school of carbon-copy remakes, the film is an identical Hollywood retread of Scott’s 2011 festival favorite Starbuck. Every scene, every joke, nearly every shot of the movie is straight out of the original.

Free Ride ** Directed by Shana Betz. A single mom (Anna Paquin) caught up in the Florida drug trade during the late 1970s tries to make a better life for her two girls. The film is content to merely document certain happenings and hope you find them as interesting as it does.

The Truth About Emanuel ** Directed by Francesca Gregorini. A troubled girl (Kaya Scodelario) becomes preoccupied with her mysterious new neighbor (Jessica Biel), who bears a striking resemblance to her dead mother. The most startling truth about Emanuel is that she’s a rather ordinary teen in a rather ordinary movie.

Walking with Dinosaurs Directed by Barry Cook, Neil Nightingale. Follows the exploits of a little underdog dino who goes on an epic adventure. Like an elaborately decorated wedding cake, the kid-friendly Walking With Dinosaurs may leave you wondering how something so stunning could end up being so bland.

Welcome to the Jungle * Directed by Rob Meltzer. A company retreat on a tropical island goes terribly awry. The story makes 94 minutes seem as long as a season of Lost and as fresh as the seventh viewing Gilligan’s Island rerun. With Jean-Claude van Damme.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Texas GOP escalates its war on women


The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the first major piece of legislation Barack Obama signed into law when he became President, not does guarantee equal pay for women. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 does that. But, like state and municipal speed limit laws, employers violate that section of the Civil Rights Act with a regularity that borders on the criminal. This is especially true in Texas where the average annual median pay for men is approximately $10,000 higher than it is for women ($44,000 to $34,000, est.). The national gap is even wider.

If a woman discovers she is being paid less for doing exactly that same work as a man in the same job, her best recourse is to file a federal lawsuit, alleging violations of the 1964 law. However, before the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the woman in question must have filed that suit within 180 days of the decision by her employer to pay her less than the man in the same job. In other words, if she works on the job for six months before she discovers she is being discriminated against, she was simply out of luck.

Under Lilly Ledbetter, that statute of limitations resets each time the woman being discriminated against receives a paycheck affected by the discriminatory action.

For some reason, Texas Republicans (following the lead, in many cases, of Republicans in other red states) have declared that women — their health and their welfare — don’t matter. Their first salvo involved passing laws that effectively closed medical facilities throughout the state that provided women with cancer screenings and other forms of health and wellness programs.

Now GOP gubernatorial candidate and, I am ashamed to admit, the likely next governor of Texas Greg Abbott, Texas’ attorney general, announced today he would not sign a Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay bill that was passed by the Texas Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, another of the Republicans’ leading warriors against women. It is interesting to note that the Lily Ledbetter legislation was introduced in the Texas Senate by Wendy Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee who made a name for herself for her filibuster against the bills designed to deny women the health care they need.

It is also interesting to note that news also broke this morning that women attorneys in Abbott’s office are being paid approximately $6,000 less a year than male attorneys. Let’s face it, the man is a pig.

Monday, March 17, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


American Hustle ****½ Directed by David O. Russell. A con man, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), along with his seductive partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and the mafia. Reveling in its ‘70s milieu and in the eternal abrasion of sexy women and covetous men, American Hustle is an urban eruption of flat-out fun — the sharpest, most exhilarating comedy in years. Anyone who says otherwise must be conning you. With Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner.

Frozen ***½ Directed by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee. Fearless optimist Anna (voice of Kristen Bell) teams up with Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Groff) in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a snowman named Olaf (voice of Josh Gad) in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel), whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter. This animated comedy-adventure has a sweet and very modern message, plus strong characters. More important, the movie blends the music-minded mentality of yore with the more recent ambition (thank you, Pixar) of truly appealing to all ages.

Kill Your Darlings *** Directed by John Krokidas. A murder in 1944 draws together the great poets of the beat generation: Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster). The saving grace of Kill Your Darlings is its sordid romantic angle, a narrative thread that pulls the film away from wink-wink allusions and into more serious emotional territory.

Saving Mr. Banks *** Directed by John Lee Hancock. When Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) sets his sights on obtaining the rights to the children’s classic Mary Poppins, he reaches out to the book’s author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), only to find that she proves a tough nut to crack. The movie does not strictly hew to the historical record where the eventual resolution of this conflict is concerned, but it is easy to accept this fictionalizing as part of the price to be paid for Thompson’s engaging performance. With Colin Farrell and Paul Giamatti.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom *** Directed by Justin Chadwick. A chronicle of Nelson Mandela’s (Idris Elba) life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. The intentions are noble, but the film’s eagerness to honor Mandela instead shortchanges him. Mandela was a man who broke the mold; Mandela is a film content to nestle very neatly into it.

Here Comes the Devil **½ Directed by Adrián García Bogliano. Grieving parents rejoice when their missing son and daughter return after disappearing on a family trip to Tijuana. But they’re not the same children they once knew, even though everything looks normal on the outside. A muddled supernatural thriller that fails to capitalize on either its horrific prologue or eerie location.

Contracted ** Directed by Eric England. A young girl (Najarra Townsend) has sex with a stranger at a party and contracts, what she thinks is, a sexually-transmitted disease, but is actually something much worse. The movie seems regressively punitive, to the point where it arguably qualifies as slut-shaming.

Swerve ** Directed by Craig Lahiff. Colin (David Lyons) happens upon a road accident where he finds a dead man, a beautiful woman (Emma Booth), and a suitcase full of money. After trying to do the right thing he soon finds himself caught up in a dangerous scheme. As it zigs and zags, its plot unravels rather than tightens, and its curveball of an ending is bound to leave viewers feeling as double-crossed as some of the characters.

The Jungle Book 2 Directed by Steve Trenbirth. Mowgli (voice of Haley Joel Osment), missing the jungle and his old friends, runs away from the man village unaware of the danger he’s in by going back to the wild. Thin and unsatisfying.

Reasonable Doubt ½* Directed by Peter Howitt. A District Attorney (Dominic Cooper) has his life turned upside down when he’s involved in a hit and run and another man is arrested for his crime and charged with murder. This utterly unmemorable, uninspired and unnecessary genre exercise should fade from view so fast they might just as soon have called it Without a Trace. With Samuel L. Jackson.

My Top 64 College Basketball Teams

This will be my final ranking of the season.
1.  Florida 32-2
2.  Arizona 30-4
3.  Villanova 28-4
4.  Wichita State 34-0
5.  Louisville 29-5
6.  Virginia 28-6
7.  Kansas 24-9
8.  Wisconsin 26-7
9.  Duke 26-8
10. Creighton 26-7
11. Michigan State 26-8
12. Michigan 25-8
13. Iowa State 26-7
14. Syracuse 27-5
15. UCLA 26-8
16. San Diego State 29-4
17. Ohio State 25-9
18. Cincinnati 27-6
19. New Mexico 27-6
20. Kentucky 24-10
21. Gonzaga 28-6
22. Virginia Commonwealth 26-8
23. Connecticut 26-8
24. Pittsburgh 25-9
25. Oklahoma 23-9
26. North Carolina 23-9
27. Oregon 23-9
28. Oklahoma State 21-12
29. St. Louis 26-6
30. Baylor 24-11
31. Tennessee 21-12
32. Iowa 20-12
33. Memphis 23-9
34. Texas 23-10
35. Massachusetts 24-8
36. George Washington 24-8
37. Harvard 26-4
38. Stanford 21-12
39. SMU 23-9 (Yes, the Mustangs got screwed by the NCAA)
40. Arizona State 21-11
41. Providence 23-11
42. St. Joseph's, Pa. 24-9
43. BYU 23-11
44. Louisiana Tech 27-7
45. Colorado 23-11
46. Kansas State 20-12
47. Xavier 21-12
48. Utah 21-11
49. St. John's 20-12
50. Dayton 23-10
51. Florida State 19-13
52. Arkansas 21-11
53. Nebraska 19-12
54. Minnesota 20-13
55. North Dakota State 25-6
56. Southern Mississippi 27-6
57. Missouri 22-11
58. Wisconsin-Green Bay 24-6
59. Stephen F. Austin 31-2
60. Georgetown 17-14
61. North Carolina State 21-13
62. Illinois 19-14
63. California 19-13
64. Clemson 20-12

Good luck wirh your brackets.

Monday, March 10, 2014

This Week's DVD Releases


Inside Llewyn Davis ****½ Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. A week in the life of a young singer (Oscar Isaac) as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. The Coen brothers are on top sardonic form with a winning tale of an incorrigible loser. Hits the right note on every level, from period vibe to performance (human and feline). As flawless as any film of 2013 and rock-solid confirmation that the brothers are the greatest filmmakers working in America (and perhaps anywhere else) today. This is a gorgeously made character study leavened with surrealistic dimensions both comic and dark, an unsparing look at a young man who, unlike some of his contemporaries, can’t transcend his abundant character flaws and remake himself as someone else. With Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake

The Broken Circle Breakdown ***½ Directed by Felix Van Groeningen. Elise (Veerlee Baetens) is a tattoo artist and religiously devout, while Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is an atheist banjo player in a bluegrass band, but the two fall instantly in love. Years later, when their daughter becomes ill, the crisis brings new challenges to their relationship. The film’s many charms drown somewhat under crushingly sad events. Still, there is redemption in the chemistry between the two lead characters, their passions and complexity, as well as in the grace of the music as it is performed and how it is used.

The Patience Stone *** Directed by Atiq Rahimi. Rahimi adapts his award-winning novel into an arresting allegorical tale about the trials of a modern-day Muslim woman (Golshifteh Farahani) living in an unspecified Middle Eastern nation, whose very existence is awash in conflict. For much of The Patience Stone, Farahani is the movie, and as she shifts from fear to despair to anger to emotions she’d never previously considered, her magnetic presence goes a long way toward putting a human face on the film, more successfully than the material around her.

Out of the Furnace *** Directed by Scott Cooper. When Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) mysteriously disappears and law enforcement doesn't follow through fast enough, his older brother, Russell (Christian Bale), takes matters into his own hands to find justice. A defiantly old-fashioned, well-crafted piece of storytelling whose power lies in its unadorned simplicity. With Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard.

Easy Money: Hard to Kill **½ Directed by Babak Najafi. While serving time, business student-turned-coke smuggler JW (Joel Kinnaman) plans to go straight when he gets out, but his past refuses to go away. Too many characters contribute to a dulling of the cross-cultural spark found in the original (and in the better-known A Prophet). Kinnaman doesn’t have as much to play with this time — without his double life, he’s just an unsmooth criminal.

The Book Thief **½ Directed by Brian Percival. Young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) steals books to teach herself to read, giving her refuge from the horrors of Nazi Germany and her cold foster parents. When not reading, she forms a bond with the Jewish man her adoptive family is hiding in their home. Some good performances, impeccable craft and good intentions can’t compensate for a lack of dramatic urgency and emotional heft. The Book Thief is effective, but not effective enough. With Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson.


Enemies Closer ** Directed by Peter Hyams. Deep within a forest on the U.S.-Canadian border, two sworn enemies (Tom Everett Scott, Orlando Jones) must work together to escape a ruthless drug cartel hell-bent on retrieving a drug shipment which went missing there. With a manic performance by Jean-Claude Van Damme as the cartel leader and an improbable but intriguing plot variation, Enemies Closer is an improvement over most hunt-or-be-hunted fare. A small improvement, but still.

HomefrontDirected by Gary Fleder. A former DEA agent (Jason Statham) moves his family to a quiet town, where he soon tangles with a local meth druglord (James Franco). A thoroughly boilerplate bayou actioner, with one notable feature. It’s got good villains — nasty, delirious, stupid villains, among them and Winona Ryder — and for that it’s almost worth seeing. Almost. With Kate Bosworth

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Arizona 28-3 (1)
2.  Florida 29-2 (2)
3.  Villanova 28-3 (3)
4.  Wichita State 34-0 (5)
5.  Kansas 23-8 (4)
6.  Louisville 26-5 (11)
7.  Duke 24-7 (6)
8.  Wisconsin 25-6 (7)
9.  Virginia 25-6 (9)
10. Creighton 24-6 (8)
11. Michigan 23-7 (12)
12. Syracuse 27-4 (10)
13. Michigan State 23-8 (14)
14. Cincinnati 26-5 (16)
15. San Diego State 27-3 (17)
16. Iowa State 23-7 (13)
17. Ohio State 23-8 (21)
18. North Carolina 23-8 (18)
19. Oklahoma 23-8 (24)
20. Virginia Commonwealth 24-7 (NR)
21. UCLA 23-8 (15)
22. Kentucky 22-9 (22)
23. Gonzaga 26-6 (25)
24. Oregon 22-8 (NR)
25. Connecticut 24-7 (19)
Dropped out: Iowa (20), St. Louis (23).

Monday, March 3, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


12 Years a Slave ****½ Directed by Steve McQueen. In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. McQueen's film is a tough, soul-sickening, uncompromising work of art that makes certain that when viewers talk about the evils of slavery, they know its full dimension. Perhaps the nature of the story is such that the film can’t help but be obvious and quite melodramatic at times, but it gets better as it goes along and builds to a moving finish.

The Grandmaster **** Directed by Kar Wai Wong. The story of martial-arts master Ip Man (Tony Chiu Wai Leung), the man who trained Bruce Lee. Intermittently action-packed and lethargic, the movie dances around formula. By delivering an expressionistic character study with bursts of intensity unlike anything else in his oeuvre and yet stylistically representative of its entirety, Wong practically has it both ways.

Hours ***½ Directed by Eric Heisserer. A father (Paul Walker) struggles to keep his infant daughter alive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The film stirs richer, truer feelings once it becomes a one-man show. This is due both to Heisserer's and Walker's skill — the tension is strong, the scenario elemental, and Walker's harried, urgent hero is compelling — but also the fact that the movies are really good at dudes doing things, especially when those things are scrappy, desperate, and heroic.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire *** Directed by Francis Lawrence. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem. Catching Fire suffers from the movie equivalent of middle-book syndrome: The story is wayward and rangy, on its way to being something, maybe, but not adding up to much by itself. Still, it’s entertaining as civics lessons go, and it’s a more polished, assured picture than its predecessor.

Girl Rising **½ Directed by Richard Robbins. A documentary that tells the stories of nine girls from different parts of the world who face arranged marriages, child slavery, and other injustices. The stories, shaped by anecdotal brevity, are often charmingly modest. Only an insistence on blandly inspirational rhetoric and a series of didactic interludes threaten to reduce the film to a PSA about the plight of young women in developing countries.

The Last Days on Mars **½ Directed by Ruairi Robinson. A group of astronaut explorers succumb one by one to a mysterious and terrifying force while collecting specimens on Mars. This unapologetically derivative sci-fi outing doesn’t have the scripting muscle to deliver on its early promise. But the solid cast keeps it reasonably gripping nonetheless.

Oldboy Directed by Spike Lee. Obsessed with vengeance, a man (Josh Brolin) sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason. The feel-bad movie of the season, Lee’s often-repellent Americanized reimagining of Korean director Chan-Wook Park’s twisty 2004 revenge thriller is relentlessly gruesome, self-consciously shocking and pretty much pointless.

Cold Comes the Night *½ Directed by Tze Chun. A struggling motel owner (Alice Eve) and her daughter are taken hostage by a nearly blind career criminal (Bryan Cranston) to be his eyes as he attempts to retrieve his cash package from a crooked cop. It’s hard not to be impatient with a movie as openly lazy as this one, which is redeemed only by its performances.

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Arizona 27-2 (1)
2.  Florida 27-2 (2)
3.  Kansas 22-7 (3)
4.  Villanova 26-3 (4)
5.  Wichita State 31-0 (8)
6.  Duke 23-6 (6)
7.  Wisconsin 24-5 (7)
8.  Creighton 23-5 (5)
9.  Virginia 25-5 (13)
10. Syracuse 26-3 (9)
11. Louisville 24-5 (10)
12. Michigan 21-7 (12)
13. Michigan State 22-7 (11)
14. Iowa State 22-6 (14)
15. Cincinnati 24-5 (20)
16. UCLA 22-7 (17)
17. North Carolina 22-7 (22)
18. San Diego State 25-3 (21)
19. Iowa 20-9 (16)
20. Connecticut 23-6 (23)
21. Kentucky 21-8 (18)
22. St. Louis 25-4 (19)
23. Oklahoma 21-8 (NR)
24. Ohio State 22-8 (15)
25. Pittsburgh 22-7 (24)
Dropped out: New Mexico (25)

The Boss re-invents disco

The Brothers Gibb weren't born in Australia, of course, but their father emigrated to Redcliffe, Queensland, Australia (just a little northeast of Brisbane) in 1958 and it was there the Bee Gees had their first hit, Spicks and Specks.

So, of course, when Bruce Springsteen played his first-ever concert in Brisbane, he opened the show with this.

Three days earlier, this is how he opened an outdoor concert at a winery in Hunter Valley, Australia, about a three hour drive from Sydney.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscar Predictions


PICTURE: OK. I’ve been talked out of it. All along I’ve thought Gravity would win the top Oscar simply because it was the best picture of the year. But all along I’ve had so many others whispering in my ears telling me why Gravity wasn’t going to walk away with this prize. Their arguments against Gravity: 1. No 3D movie has ever won the best picture Oscar; 2. No film without a nomination from the Screen Actors Guild combined with no screenplay nominations has ever won; 3, No film set in space has ever won’ 4. No film with only two actors has ever won; 5. No special effects-driven movie has ever won and 90 percent of Gravity is special effects; 6. Too many voters probably saw Gravity when the DVD was mailed to their homes, and the magnificence of the film is greatly diminished on the home screen. So, somewhat reluctantly, I’m predicting 12 Years a Slave to pull out a narrow win, although I will be rooting for Gravity. What 12 Years has going against it is that it is a very difficult film to watch. That’s why I think an overwhelming majority of voters will actually list a film other than 12 Years at the top of their ballot. Which, ironically, works in 12 Years’s favor and why I am now predicting it will win. Because it is an "important, prestige" picture, those voters who don’t have it at No. 1 will list it at No. 2 or No. 3. In the Oscar’s new weighted preferential ballot tabulation system, in which the movie with the fewest votes in each round of counting gets eliminated until one film achieves more than 50 percent of the votes, the film listed on most ballots at either 1, 2, or 3 has the best chance of winning. Follow that?

ACTOR: When these nominations were announced, I thought Chiwetel Ejiofor would win easily for 12 Years a Slave. Then Matthew McConaughey’s (Dallas Buyers Club) ascent began until he became, first, as serious challenger to Ejiofor and finally the favorite. Then, another challenger began to emerge: Leonardo DiCaprio for Wolf of Wall Street, a film I didn’t like as much as most folks did. So, as of now, this is a two-person race between McConaughey and DiCaprio, but I think DiCaprio’s charge has come too late in the process and besides, on Oscar night, there is room for only one heartthrob, Finally, the story of how other actors are patterning their career path after McConaughey’s that appeared in this morning's New York Times sealed it for me. If you're featured on Oscar weekend in The Times that means the winner will be Matthew McConaughey.

ACTRESS: This award belonged to Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) before the nominations were announced, after and will be given to her tomorrow night. I only wish we could see the final tabulations because I would love to know whether Sandra Bullock or Amy Adams came in second place.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: No contest. Jared Leto for Dallas Buyer’s Club.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: I see Lupito Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) winning, but this is a category that is always giving us major surprises. And the surprise this year could be Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle, but I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it.

DIRECTOR: Not backing off my original prediction here: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) beccomes the first Hispanic to win this award, denying Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) the opportunity to become the first black director to take it home. Immigration reform anyone?

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: The marvelous American Hustle cannot go home empty-handed from Oscar night, so I’m predicting it will win a close victory over Her.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: 12 Years a Slave

PRODUCTION DESIGN: The Great Gatsby, although if Gravity wins here all bets are off on best picture.

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Gravity

COSTUMES: The Great Gatsby, although I will be rooting for American Hustle.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: The Great Beauty

SOUND MIXING: Gravity, of course.

SOUND EDITING: Ibid

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Here’s where I’m going on record as predicting what mindless dolts the majority of Academy voters are. Prior to this year, voters were required to see all five nominees before they could vote in this category. If that rule were still in place, the superb The Act of Killing, a film superior to most of those nominated for best picture, would win going away. But because that rule has been rescinded, the nice, sweet 20 Feet From Stardom will win, but, boy, do I hope the Academy proves me wrong on this one.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: The Lady in Number 6

ANIMATED FEATURE: Frozen

ANIMATED SHORT: Get a Horse

LIVE ACTION SHORT: Helium, although I would not be shocked if The Voorman Problem snuck in there.

VISUAL EFFECTS: See the sound categories.

FILM EDITING: I’m going with Gravity just because of the bandwagon effect, but I would not be surprised to see Captain Phillips win its only Oscar here.

SCORE: Gravity

SONG: Let It Go from Frozen

MAKEUP: Dallas Buyers Club

I’ll try to do better next year.