Monday, February 23, 2015

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Whiplash ***½ Directed by Damien Chazelle. A promising young drummer (Miles Teller) enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor (J.K. Simmons) who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential. Chazelle’s hyperventilated nightmare about artistic struggle, artistic ambition. It’s as much a horror movie as it is a keenly realized indie about jazz, about art, about what it takes to claim greatness.

Big Hero 6 *** Directed by Don Hall, Chris Williams. A genius robotics engineer (voice of Ryan Potter) finds himself enmeshed in a nefarious scheme to wipe out the city of San Fransokyo. A rousing movie that’s satisfyingly infused with traditional Disney sentiment.

Beyond the Lights *** Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Unprepared for the demands of fame and the conflicts that success generates, a rising musical star (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) finds herself in a moment of suicidal despair until she’s rescued by a young policeman (Nate Parker) who’s destined to become her lover. As a work of art, the movie is merely on the bright side of OK. But as a vehicle for an emerging star, as a platform to show one actress in a variety of modes and moods, within a sympathetic and glamorous context, it couldn’t be better.

Horrible Bosses 2 Directed by Sean Anders. Dale (Charley Day), Kurt (Jason Sudeikus) and Nick (Jason Bateman) decide to start their own business but things don’t go as planned because of a slick investor, prompting the trio to pull off a harebrained and misguided kidnapping scheme. A lackluster second effort that mines a lot of the same jokes. Only no joke is as funny the second time around, even when it’s being delivered by really funny people.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscar predictions

Picture: Just like last year, this is a two-film race and just like last year it appears the Academy is set to split the booty between the two, giving the picture nod to one and the director statue to the other. Even though all signs are pointing to a Birdman sweep, I’m betting the Academy will do the right thing like it did last year and actually give this Oscar to the best picture of the year Boyhood. The reason why Birdman has such a strong chance is because, like Crash (which also didn’t deserve its best picture Oscar), this is a truly inside Hollywood movie. Crash tried to tell the world that those who lived in Los Angeles were really not as racist as all those outsiders believed, a message that the majority of Oscar voters who live in Los Angeles warmly embraced. Birdman not only concerns itself with the entertainment industry but takes aim at targets the industry loves to skewer, especially critics and superhero films. Birdman is a film for Hollywood while Boyhood is a film for the world and Oscar voters too often suffer from tunnel vision.

Director: Although I’m rooting for Richard Linklater in this category, not only for his execution of Boyhood, but because of the bravery he displayed in thinking he could pull this off, I think the Oscar will go to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who admittedly displayed a unique approach to Birdman.

Actor: Another two person contest, but I think the momentum is with Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything although Michael Keaton’s work in Birdman could pull through. Keaton is also the strong sentimental favorite. This is the only acting category that’s in doubt.

Actress: No contest. Julianne Moore (Still Alice) has this in the bag.

Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash). None of the other nominees has a shot.

Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood).

Original Screenplay: The Grand Budapest Hotel with Birdman being the only other nominee that possibly could pull off the upset.

Adapted Screenplay: This is a close one between Whiplash and The Imitation Game, but I’m going to go with the latter. Graham Moore wins his first Oscar.

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman) wins his second Oscar.

Costume Design: Milena Canonero (The Grand Budapest Hotel) wins her fourth Oscar.

Film Editing: Sandra Adair (Boyhood) wins her first Oscar although Tom Cross (Whiplash) has an outside chance.

Makeup and Hair: Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Production Design: Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Score: I’m going to go with Johann Johansson (The Theory of Everything) to win this one over Alexandre Desplat whose nominated twice in this category (The Grand Budapest Hotel, for which he might pull off the upset, and The Imitation Game). These are Desplat’s seventh and eighth nominations and he has never won so if does take this away from Johansson it will only be because voters are going with sentimentality over achievement, which they are known to do.

Song: I never get this category correct, but this year I feel quite confident in saying you could put your money on John Legend and Common taking home the Oscar for "Glory" from the film Selma.

Sound Editing: Alan Robert Muray and Bub Asman for American Sniper. Hey, the most popular movie of the year has to win something.

Sound Mixing: I’m going with a slight upset here picking Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley (Whiplash) over John Reiz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin (American Sniper).

Visual Effects: Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, Scott Fisher for Interstellar.

Animated Feature: Although The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was the best animated film of the year, even better than the non-nominated (for some amazing reason I have yet to comprehend) The Lego Movie, the Oscar in this category will go to Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold for How To Train Your Dragon 2.

Documentary: Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky for CitizenFour.

Foreign Language Film: Pawel Pawilowski (Poland) for Ida.

Animated Short: Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed for Feast, although a win by The Dam Keeper wouldn’t shock me.

Documentary Short: Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry for Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.

Live Action Short: Mat Kirby and James Lucas for The Phone Call.

Friday, February 20, 2015

For whom this Bell tolls, it tolls for bigotry and stupidity

I haven’t taken a position on gay marriage one way or the other. I have, however, taken a position on marriage, which is any two adult human beings who love each other and chose of their own free will to display publicly that love through marriage should be able to do so. That’s it. No other qualifications. If you’re an adult, in love, and want to get married, our free society should allow you to do so.

The lead story on the front page of today’s Austin American-Statesman bears the headline "FIRST GAY COUPLE MARRIED IN TEXAS" (yes, the headline was in all capital letters). My first reaction was "Texas finally enters the 20th century 115 years after the rest of the world" and then I was struck by a tinge of sadness that I live in a world where the marriage of two women who are in love, who have lived together for 31 years, should even be in the news in the first place.

But those emotions turned to anger when I followed the story to the inside pages that featured reaction to this news from a number of people including the village idiot from Magnolia, one Cecil Bell, who also happens to represent that area of southeast Texas in the state House. The last sentence of his reaction, as printed in the Statesman, reads as follows: "I am very conservative myself and I have very strong religious beliefs, and I believe that this is an enormous intrusion on the rights of Texas and it tramples on the religious rights of Texas."

Now I have absolutely no problems with this fool’s conservative leanings and I will defend forever his rights to maintain his own "very strong religious beliefs." However I take extremely strong exception to his statement that this marriage "tramples on the religious rights of Texas."

First of all, this couple was married by a rabbi. Now, I can imagine that in the walled-off world in which Dingdong Bell has erected for himself, he might not even know what a rabbi is. And even if someone tried to tell him, I’m not sure he would accept the facts. I mean, look, the Flat Earth Society is still alive and well and some still dispute the facts of climate change and refuse to acknowledge that "trickle-down economics" doesn’t create jobs because it quits trickling down at the CEO level.

But anyone with the IQ of your average 2-year-old or better will know that if any ordained spiritual leader of a religious congregation performs a ritual ceremony of any kind, the odds are very good that ritual ceremony is not going to trample on the religious rights of the members of that congregation, whether than congregation is in Texas, Alabama, California, Argentina, Russia, anywhere.

But even more important than that is the question: So what if it does? This country was founded on the idea there should be "a separation of church and state." And I gotta tell you, I’m getting damn sick and tired of these people who claim they are "very conservative myself," arguing we should only enact laws as intended by "our founding fathers" no matter what except if those laws contradict their "very strong religious beliefs."

The original illegal immigrants who came to this country came, in large numbers, to escape religious persecution. They knew that the religious teachings of one group may be directly the opposite of the teachings of another. That’s why they established a secular society that protected the freedoms of all religious teachings and beliefs, but made it clear that those beliefs should have no part in civil and criminal law. They knew that most of society’s most horrendous acts were fomented in the name of religion. The root cause of entire conflict in the Middle East today is the result of religious differences, not only among the actual Middle East nations, but also because the United States tried to obliterate the religious teachings of many Middle Eastern cultures and to replace them with our own value systems, not that much different from what Bell is doing through his backward statements on marriage.

This a Bell that needs to stop ringing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

This week's DVD Releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya **** Directed by Isao Takahata. Found inside a shining stalk of bamboo by an old bamboo cutter and his wife, a tiny girl grows rapidly into an exquisite young lady. A visionary tour de force, morphing from a childlike gambol into a sophisticated allegory on the folly of materialism and the evanescence of beauty.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) ***½ Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakas, Edward Norton, Andrea Risenborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts. A washed up actor, who once played an iconic superhero, battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself in the days leading up to the opening of a Broadway play. One of the year’s most audacious, savagely funny and unpredictable films, it features an outstanding performance by Keaton as the has-been star of a superhero franchise desperate to be taken seriously.

Life Itself ***½ Directed by Steve James. The life and career of film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert. Far more than just a tribute to the career of the world’s most famous and influential film critic, this often revelatory documentary is also a remarkably intimate portrait of a life well lived — right up to the very last moment.

The Theory of Everything *** Directed by James Marsh. With his body progressively ravaged by ALS, Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) must rely on his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), to continue his life’s work as he faces various challenges. The film is a boilerplate biopic, but with stunning cinematography and a couple of fierce performances, it is nothing if not an accomplished and emotional work of cinema.

The Homesman *** Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country by covered wagon by the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), who in turn employs low-life drifter George Briggs (Jones) to assist her. The film’s difficulties are in the roiling emotions that run through it. Intimacy and the interdependence required to survive a harsh environment are more easily achieved. Swank and Jones, in particular, are a very good odd couple, playing saint and sinner, sometimes reversing the roles.

St. Vincent **½ Directed by Theodore Melfi. Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts. A young boy whose parents have just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who lives next door. Here’s how good an actor Murray is. He does such a bristly, entertaining turn as a boozy curmudgeon in St. Vincent, that he saves first-time director Melfi’s obvious dramedy from sliding into a burbling sinkhole of schmaltz.

The Interview ** Directed by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogan. Talk-show host David Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Rogan) are overjoyed when they get the chance to conduct an exclusive interview with Kim Jong-Un, the leader of North Korea. But their perspective on their big break shifts when the CIA asks them to assassinate the ruler. While The Interview never slacks in its mission to tell jokes, it’s such a messy and meandering movie that it never quite lands as a satire of politics or the media or anything else.

Dumb and Dumber To Directed by Bobby Farrelly, Peter Farrelly. With Harry (Jeff Daniels) in need of a kidney, he and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) set off to find the long-lost child Harry only recently discovered he’d sired. So maybe some of this is hilarious. Heck, maybe all of it is. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it was not mine.

Monday, February 9, 2015

This Week's DVD Releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Force Majeure ***½ Directed by Ruben Ostland. At a ski resort in the Alps, the sudden and terrifying approach of an avalanche opens a deep fissure in the lives of a vacationing Swedish family when the patriarch flees to save himself instead of protecting his wife and children. A cruelly precise, often bleakly comic account of upper-middle-class privilege coming unglued when the cosmos throws a curveball.

Stray Dogs ***½ Directed by Tsai Ming Liang. Follows the odyssey of a father and his two children living on the fringes of Taipei, offering glimpses into their past and a vision of a brighter future. The director’s austere minimalism has always been suspended between the mesmerizing and the distancing, and in his latest feature, the concentration on elliptical observation, mood and texture signals an almost complete rejection of narrative.

Nightcrawler *** Directed by Dan Gilroy. Eager for any work that will make ends meet, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) joins the flock of camera crews prowling the nighttime streets of Los Angeles in search of scandal and crime. Despite a mesmerizing performance by Gyllenhaal — he’s as transfixing as a cobra in a snake charmer’s dance — and a terrific turn by Riz Ahmed as an unskilled homeless kid Lou hires as his assistant, Nightcrawler doesn’t quite have the satirical smarts that made Network a classic.

Predestination *** Directed by The Spierig Brothers. Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor. Dispatched on a mission intended to alter the fabric of history, a temporal agent from a remote reality travels through time to prevent a criminal madman from carrying out a devastating attack on New York City. Succeeds in teasing the brain and touching the heart even when its twists and turns keep multiplying well past the point of narrative sustainability.

Kink *** Directed by Christina Voros. A documentary on fetish website Quite convincing in presenting this one workplace as a happy, sane environment where people respect each other and aren’t manipulated into doing things they don’t ultimately enjoy. But it leaves plenty of room to presume that is an outlier in the industry.

Rosewater **½ Directed by Jon Stewart. Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is detained by Iranian forces who brutally interrogate him under suspicion that he is a spy. For better or worse, torture-themed films don’t get too much easier to take than this one.

Laggies **½ Directed by Lynn Shelton. Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwall. In the throes of a quarter-life crisis, Megan panics when her boyfriend proposes, then, taking an opportunity to escape for a week, hides out in the home of her new friend, 16-year-old Annika, who lives with her world-weary single dad. Possesses irrepressible cheer, optimism and an innate sense of ease that often go missing in angstier productions loosely organized under "Aging, fear of." Unlike its sometimes annoyingly wishy-washy heroine, this is a movie that knows just where it’s going, and finds joy in the journey.

Lilting **½ Directed by Hong Khaou. In contemporary London, a Cambodian Chinese mother mourns the untimely death of her son. The film is awfully methodical, almost mathematical, in working through the various emotional steps every character must take in reaching an end point we readily guess. You appreciate the effort, even as you sense it.

Kill the Messenger **½ Directed by Michael Cuesta. Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Michael K. Williams, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Andy Garcia. A reporter becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign that drives him to the point of suicide after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s a great vehicle for Renner, and a showcase for the kind of work he should be doing more regularly.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day ** Directed by Miguel Arteta. Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner. When 11-year-old Alexander wakes up with gum stuck in his hair, he’s unaware that it’s only the start of a daylong ordeal of woes. The latest example of a wonderful children’s book turned into a mediocre movie.

Felony ** Directed by Matthew Saville. Three detectives become embroiled in a tense struggle after a tragic accident that leaves a child in a coma. Proves only that skilled actors and slick photography can tart up even the most problematic script.

The Song Directed by Richard Ramsey. An aspiring singer-songwriter’s life and marriage suffer when the song he writes for his wife propels him to stardom. Striking nary an unfamiliar note, The Song sluggishly lurches towards its predictable conclusion — spoiler alert, the hero sees the error of his ways — but it does offer a few pleasures along the way.

Poker Night Directed by Greg Francis. Beau Mirchoff, Titus Welliver, Michael Eklund, Ron Eldard, Corey Large, Giancarlo Esposito, Ron Perlman. A young detective becomes an unwilling participant in a sadistic game of cat-and-mouse when he is kidnapped by a masked serial killer. Francis has a few moments of inspiration, nonchalantly deploying visual gags. If he were going for cult status, perhaps gonzo is the way to go. The rest of his stylistic flaunts, plot twists and contrivances are joyless.

Addicted * Directed by Bille Woodruff. A gallerist risks her family and flourishing career when she enters into an affair with a talented painter and slowly loses control of her life. Doesn’t know whether it wants to be a modern-day bodice-ripper, a morality-tinged cautionary tale or a serious snapshot of sexual compulsion. Whatever the case, it fails on all fronts.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Progressives should follow the Tea Party’s example

It makes no difference whether you agree or disagree with the stated philosophies of the Tea Party — and, as a progressive, I abhor them all — you must acknowledge one unassailable fact: It is the most successful third party in American history, at least since the dawn of the 20th Century. The reason why the Tea Party has succeeded as a political force, where other third parties like the Green or Libertarian parties have failed, is because it operates within the existing political structure, in this case the Republican Party.

As a result, we now have on the American political scene, what amounts to three political parties: the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the Tea Party. Admit it: Texas, to cite just one example, is not a Republican state, it’s a Tea Party State.

The Tea Party was founded by white supremists and isolationists, but gained its greatest success when big business and the monied elite realized the aims of the Tea Party coincided with their own and if the Tea Party succeeded in what they wanted from government, the rich would get richer and big business would hold even more power than it does today. They scoured the landscape, found individuals who not only agreed with their jingoism but were willing to espouse it publicly, financed their political fortunes and sent them out to spread their message in evangelical style. It attracted a fanatical following, which flocked to election booths and resulted in the so-called Republican landslide of 2014.

This wasn’t a case of Americans suddenly adhering to the Tea Party point of view. It was a case of a handful of fanatics who cared enough to vote while most of American stayed home because, unlike the Tea Party, it couldn’t find a set of ideals around which to rally. Just 36.4 percent of the voting age population bothered to vote in last year’s midterms. That’s the lowest percentage since 1942 when only 33.9 percent of voting-age Americans cast ballots and a lot of that drop off could be attributed to the fact that a significant number of those Americans were off somewhere fighting in a war.

I will argue that progressive ideals and programs — Social Security, Medicare, civil rights legislation, etc. — are what have made this country great. But for some reason, the progressive movement has fallen silent and its ideals have been co-opted by the mainstream Democratic Party. This is nothing new. The progressive movement had a major surge in the late 1960s through the mid-1970s and then it all went downhill and culminated in the nomination and election of Jimmy Carter for president and has continued through the presidencies of Bill Clinton and, unfortunately, Barack Obama. And now that Democrats seemed ready to anoint Hillary Clinton as its nominee for 2016, the prospects are more of the same. I can see the monied interests of Wall Street readily supporting a Clinton candidacy, but I can’t see grass-roots, middle-class, progressive thinking voters being overly excited about the prospect. And as much as I admire some of what I’ve heard from Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, she has yet to convince me she is the person to grab the banner of the progressive movement and lead followers to the barricades.

What is needed are new progressive voices within the framework of the Democratic Party, those unafraid to speak about issues that will drive those stay-at-homes-on-election-day to the polls, much in the same way the Tea Party has. Issues like gun safety, voting rights for all, sensible immigration reform, an individual’s right to make their own health care choices and to have the facilities available to them for those choices, an individual’s right to marry the person they love: programs based on loving thy neighbor instead of those based on distrusting them and, yes, even outright despising them.

Progressives should spend more time following the Tea Party’s blueprint for political takeover and less time criticizing it without offering an alternative ideals and candidates to excite and energize the American electorate.

Monday, February 2, 2015

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

The Overnighters **** Directed by Jesse Moss. Local pastor Jay Reinke tries to help the unemployed men drawn to North Dakota by the lure of jobs in the state’s booming shale oil industry. A third-act revelation will knock you silly and cause you to reevaluate everything that’s come before, but even without that jaw-dropping information, Moss’ film is a righteous piece of empathetic, of-the-moment documentary filmmaking.

Starred Up ***½ Directed by David Mackenzie. Jack O.Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend. A teenage offender’s violent temper gets him moved to an adult prison, where he finds a different breed of inmate including his long-incarcerated father. Thematically tough and emotionally rough, Starred Up is the kind of movie you might think about renting or streaming with some reluctance. But because everyone involved does such an outstanding job, it’s also the kind of movie you won’t want to see end.

Dear White People ***½ Directed by Justin Simien. A satire that follows the stories of four black students at an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out over a popular "African American" themed party thrown by white students. The most impressive thing about Simien’s impressive film is his script, which he wrote. With multiple protagonists and multiple storylines to serve, he deftly manages to keep a number of balls in the air — without losing sight of his film’s purpose.

Appropriate Behavior *** Directed by Desiree Akhavan. As a bisexual Iranian-American, Shirin (Akhavan) doesn’t quite fit in to her perfect Persian family — and she can’t make a relationship work. Akhavan’s confidently off-kilter approach to basic human interaction makes for an authentically ironic, adorably wistful, smartly observed ride.

The Retrieval *** Directed by Chris Eska. During the Civil War, a boy is sent north by his bounty hunter gang to retrieve a fugitive slave. Despite its meager budget, The Retrieval is characterized by its authenticity. The dialogue and attitudes are persuasive in creating both a consistent psychology and a sense of the historical past, without ever lapsing into a flowery 19th century-ness.

John Wick *** Directed by Chad Stahelski. An ex-hitman (Keanu Reeves) comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him. If you can stomach the setup, then the rest is pure revenge-movie gold, as Reeves reminds what a compelling action star he can be, while the guy who served as his stunt double in The Matrix makes a remarkably satisfying directorial debut, delivering a clean, efficient and incredibly assured thriller.

Food Chains **½ Directed by Sanjay Rawal. Details the ethics of the food supply industry, pointing out the power of huge supermarket chains to dictate low wages and inhumane labor conditions for farmworkers in the United States. The participants make a strong case, although the most emotionally powerful moments involve the workers themselves.

Exposed **½ Directed by Beth B. Profiles eight women and men who use their nakedness to transport the viewer beyond the last sexual and social taboos that our society holds dear. If you’ve never been to a burlesque show, this will give you some idea of what you’ve been missing. The dedication and warmth of the performers are infectious.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby **½ Directed by Ned Benson. Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Viola Davis, William Hurt, Ciaráh Hinds. Depicts the dissolving union of Eleanor and Conor, who begin drifting apart in the wake of a tragic and traumatizing event.. As a whole, it doesn’t quite work, but the parts — particular moments, observations and insights about the way people behave and perceive themselves — are frequently excellent.

Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain ** Directed by Ravi Kumar. Chronicles events leading up to the 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India, and the shattering repercussions that turned the city into a nightmarish landscape strewn with more than 10,000 corpses. Some of the portrayals are over-the-top in their villainy, and the dialogue, acting and music all tend to be melodramatic. But all of the overt heartstring-pulling doesn’t add much. Given the awful calamity, the truth would have been enough to amp up the emotions.

Starry Eyes ** Directed by Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Wydmyer. Determined to make it as an actress in Hollywood, Sarah Walker (Alex Essoe) spends her days working a dead-end job, enduring petty friendships and going on countless casting calls in hopes of catching her big break. After a series of strange auditions, Sarah lands the leading role in a new film from a mysterious production company. The film begins to go downhill once it delves into body horror that makes Sarah’s transformation into a ravishing beauty as ghoulishly physical as it is mental.

Dracula Untold Directed by Gary Shore. As his kingdom is being threatened by the Turks, young prince Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) must become a monster feared by his own people in order to obtain the power needed to protect his family and the families of his kingdom. Armour-clanging, cloak-swishing tosh with okay battles, terrible dialogue and sadly little horror or heroism. Nowhere near as bad as I, Frankenstein — but what is?

Video Games: The Movie Directed by Jeremy Snead. Chronicles the meteoric rise of video games from nerd niche to multi-billion dollar industry. Unfocused and repetitive, this feature-length commercial uses a muddled timeline and bargain basement graphics to produce a horn-tooting, "Aren’t games awesome?" tone.

Ouija Directed by Stiles White. While entertaining themselves with an old-fashioned Ouija board, several young friends unintentionally conjure up a sinister ancient spirit. Bland, safe horror for those who like their scares nonexistent.

Hector and the Search for Happiness * Directed by Peter Chelsom. Simon Pegg, Toni Collette, Rosamund Pike, Stellan Skarsgard, Jean Reno, Veronica Ferres, Barry Atsma, Christopher Plummer. Leaving behind a lucrative career as a psychiatrist, discontented Hector (Pegg) begins a journey across the planet in search of genuine happiness. Not even this sprightly cast can buck the privileged sense of entitlement that bedevils this movie. Don’t count on the impish humor that Pegg has unleashed so successfully in other movies to save the day.

The Best of Me * Directed by Michael Hoffman. Michelle Monaghan, James Marsden, Luke Bracey, Liana Liberato. Two former high school sweethearts reunite after many years when they return to visit their small hometown for a funeral. The bad news is that no matter how charming or fizzy the chemistry between the actors might be, they’re still trapped in the dead, fake melodrama and brainless coincidences of a Nicholas Sparks story.

Exists ½* Directed by Jamie Nash. A group of friends who venture into remote Texas woods for a party weekend find themselves stalked by Bigfoot. Against all good sense, Exists plays its material straight, possibly proving itself the year’s most laughably derivative and dreary film.

Some thoughts on the Super Bowl and the events leading up to it

I was rooting for the Patriots to win this one. For some reason, I am not a big fan of the Seahawks and the reason was exemplified at the end of the game. No, not the interception, I’ll get to that later. I’m talking about the brawl that occurred when New England got the ball back and Seattle was flagged for unnecessary roughness resulting in one of their players being tossed. The Seahawks have always come across to me as the thugs of the NFL.

What I was really rooting for, however, was an exciting, well-played game and I got that in deluxe fashion. One of the best, most nail-biting Super Bowls ever.

Here’s an interesting statistic that hasn’t received the attention it deserved since the game ended. Five times this year, the Seahawks handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch on the opponent’s 1-yard line and only once did Lynch get into the end zone. One in five, not the greatest of odds, especially on second down. I’ve always thought the smart play in that situation — when everyone in the universe knows for a solid dead certain fact you’re going to run the ball — was to catch the defense completely off guard with a pass. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks have done it several times this year and each time it has worked. This time, however, New England’s Malcolm Butler simply made a great, albeit improbable, interception, just as improbable as Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse’s catch that victimized otherwise excellent coverage by Butler just a couple of plays earlier. Instead of vilifying Carroll — and the numbers argue he doesn’t deserve the criticism he’s getting (especially when Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson could have checked out of the play when he saw how the defense was lining up) — the public should be heaping praise on Butler’s interception.

After this game, is it time to call Tom Brady the greatest NFL quarterback of all time? I will give the nod to the Brady-Bill Belichick as the single greatest coach-quarterback combo of all time, although the Cleveland Browns duo of Paul Brown and Otto Graham is second by only whisker. As far as the greatest NFL quarterback, I still have to go with Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts, not simply because he won three NFL championships, was the league MVP three times and held the record for the most consecutive games with a touchdown pass which was finally broken 52 years later by Drew Brees in 2012, but also because he called all his own plays — he was the team’s quarterback as well as its offensive coordinator.

The single greatest example of a non-story this NFL season has to be the one about the air pressure in the footballs during the first half of New England-Indianapolis playoff game. For one thing, it’s patently obvious that whatever conditions the footballs were in, it didn’t seem to measurably help the Patriots all that much. In that first half, when New England allegedly had this huge advantage because of the inflation of the football, the Patriots outscored Indianapolis 17-7. In the second half, when everything was even, New England whooped the Colts 28-0.

And if there was that much difference between the footballs Indianapolis used in the first half and the ones employed by the Patriots, why wasn’t that fact noticed by at least one of the referees, who touch the balls more than anyone else on the field? I haven’t heard one ref in that game come forward and say anything about the pounds-per-square-inch difference in the footballs used by the two teams.

So let’s just shut up about this entire non-event.

Now, about that Dez Bryant catch … and I do mean CATCH … is the NFL trying to get around explaining its inconsistency in the fact that "the ground can’t cause a fumble" but it can cause an incompletion? Get real! I’m not saying that catch, if it was ruled correctly, changes the outcome of the game. I’m just saying he caught the damn ball and that’s all there is to it. Quit trying to convince me with some arcane rule interpretation that he didn’t.

Monday, January 26, 2015

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness *** Directed by Mami Sunada. Granted near-unfettered access to the notoriously insular Studio Ghibli, Sunada follows the three men who are the lifeblood of Ghibli: the eminent director Hayao Miyazaki, the producer Toshio Suzuki, and the elusive and influential ‘other director’ Isao Takahata over the course of a year as the studio rushes to complete two films, Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and Takahata’s The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. If you’re not enraptured with the work of Miyazaki, Takahata and the rest of the artists at Ghibli, this may not be precisely what you’re looking for, but Sanada captures something poetic about art and creativity that could speak to anyone, animation fan or otherwise.

Art and Craft *** Directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman. When one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history is finally exposed, he must confront the legacy of his 30-year con. A documentary that adds fuel to the argument that the art market is a rigged game manipulated by curators and gallerists spouting mumbo-jumbo.

Why Don’t You Play in Hell? *** Directed by Shion Sono. The bitter feuds and unrequited loves that bind two warring Yakuza clans are intensified by the comical interference of a deluded film director and his guerrilla crew, who are hired to propel the daughter of one of the gang leaders to movie stardom. The film’s blast of self-mocking overkill can be charming.

The Book of Life *** Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez. Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum. Manolo, a young man who is torn between fulfilling the expectations of his family and following his heart, embarks on an adventure that spans three fantastic worlds where he must face his greatest fears. The characters move around in a thoroughly realized universe full of imaginative and beautifully rendered detail. Too bad the rest of it isn’t more interesting.

Fury **½ Directed by David Ayer. During the waning days of World War II in Europe, U.S. Army Sgt. Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) leads his tank crew against overwhelming German forces. It’s engaging and watchable, even as it marches toward a seemingly suicidal climax. Yet the complex dynamic between Wardaddy and his men is fascinating.

My Old Lady ** Directed by Israel Horovitz. Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith. An American inherits an apartment in Paris from his father that comes with an unexpected resident, his father’s former lover. Though Horovitz’s directing is workmanlike solid, and while the movie has a certain charm that makes it easy to walk in the door, it gives you little reason to stay.

The Judge ** Directed by David Dobkin. Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall. Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. The film is well served by intense performances from its two stars, but is undercut by obvious note-hitting in the writing and a deliberate pace that drags things out about 20 minutes past their due date.

Open Windows ** Directed by Nacho Vigalondo. Elijah Wood, Sasha Grey. A jilted fan finds himself pulled into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse after he accepts the opportunity to spy on his favorite actress via his laptop. Timidity and perhaps fear, of visual confinement, of lingering emotional engagement, closes Vigalondo’s most promising windows.

Miss Meadows Directed by Karen Leigh Hopkins. A proper elementary school teacher (Katie Holmes) moonlights as a vigilante. Hopkins is unsuccessful in navigating the absurd storyline’s jarring tonal shifts, with the result that this kinder, gentler variation on Ms. 45 mainly emerges as off-puttingly bizarre.

Before I Go To Sleep Directed by Rowan Joffe. Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong. After surviving a brutal assault, a woman awakens each morning incapable of remembering anything about her past, including the previous day. If it weren’t for the diligent performances of its stars, who inject some emotional depth into this bogus claptrap, this would be an unwatchable, titter-inducing catastrophe.

The Remaining Directed by Casey La Scala. Friends gather at a wedding, but the celebration is shattered by terrifying apocalyptic events. There’s a fundamental problem here. The movie relies on the instinctual human fear of death, but its message is that dying is a promotion.

Days and Nights Directed by Christian Camargo. Christian Carmago, Katie Holmes, William Hurt, Allison Janney, Cherry Jones, Russell Means, Michael Nyqvist, Jean Reno, Juliet Rylance, Mark Rylance, Ben Whislaw. An aging actress’s makes a fateful choice to visit her son and ailing brother in 1980s New England. The drama over dinner comes in small analgesic portions, and the secrets feel canned and the dialogue is too pretty to be believable.

The Color of Time Directed by 11 different directors. Zach Braff, Bruce Campbell, Jessica Chastain, James Franco, Henry Hopper, Mila Kunis. Takes the viewer on a journey through several decades of American life from poet CK Williams’s childhood and adolescence in Detroit in the 1940s and ‘50s to the early 1980s. The tone is delicate and vaporous, more attuned to mood and melancholy than anything resembling a conventional narrative. And despite the ambition on display, the film feels awfully slight, like a dream forgotten immediately upon waking. In its admirable but muddled attempt to fuse pure poetry and pure cinema, it ends up doing justice to neither.

Monday, January 19, 2015

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz *** Directed by Brian Kanppenberger. The story of the programming prodigy and information activist who took his own life at the age of 26. Delivers a touching, morally outraged portrait that, in memory of Swartz, may inspire people to ask hard questions about how the new world is being shaped away from view, behind closed doors.

The Drop *** Directed by Michael R. Roskam. Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini. An ex-con resolves to start a new life away from crime, but his bartending job at a local tavern pulls him back toward trouble when the load of cash that gangsters are laundering through the bar mysteriously disappears. The movie’s unpredictability is organic rather than sensationalistic. The movie doesn’t pull surprises out of thin air for the sole purpose of shocking the viewer — it lets them develop naturally.

The Green Prince *** Directed by Nadav Schirman. The son of a top leader in Palestine’s militant Hamas movement, spends a decade working as a mole for Israeli intelligence. A narrative documentary thriller that effectively employs many elements of a John le Carré spy novel: international intrigue, arresting twists and turns, and characters with complicated motivations.

Coherence **½ Directed by James Ward Byrkit. When a passing comet causes a neighborhood to lose power, four couples gathered for a dinner party discover a nearby house whose lights are still on. But the friends’ decision to investigate sparks encounters with bizarre phenomena. Byrkit and his actors successfully build a sense of tension, and then dread, from what appears to be an extremely limited budget. Indeed, the movie was shot primarily in his own living room.

Lucy **½ Directed by Luc Besson. Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman. A young woman forced to become a drug mule for the mob develops superhuman abilities when the narcotics she’s carrying in her stomach accidentally leak into her system. Besson’s script may let Johansson and Freeman down in the third act, but the 89 minute long Lucy is so brisk it’ll give you whiplash. Even marginal thrillers benefit from a director and star who have a sense of urgency and are as hellbent as this on not overstaying their welcome.

The Boxtrolls **½ Directed by Graham Annabelle, Anthony Stacchi. A young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator. This animate feature stands reasonably well on its own, as a cool steampunk fairy-tale that serves as yet another testament to the artistry of the folks at Laika.

May in the Summer **½ Directed by Cherien Dabis. May (Dabis) travels to Jordan for her wedding to Ziad (Alexander Siddig), a fellow Arab American, but faces the disapproval of her mother, a converted evangelical Christian who doesn’t want her daughter marrying a Muslim man. It’s diverting to watch and has moments of brilliance, but even with all its refreshing female characters, the film doesn’t leave a lasting impression.

Life’s a Breeze ** Directed by Lance Daly. In the process of making over an aging matriarch’s ratty apartment, a cash-strapped Irish clan inadvertently discards her mattress that’s stuffed with nearly one million euros. From a filmmaking standpoint, is something of a jumble. There’s a whimsical score that sounds like a Mumford & Sons bridge on repeat that underlines the quirky tone in rather annoying ways.

Rudderless ** Directed by William H. Macy. Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman, Selena Gomez, Laurence Fisburne. Devastated over his son’s death, former ad exec Sam (Crudup) removes himself from society to drink away his grief. When he summons the will to perform his son’s songs at a local bar, the music gains popularity and Sam claims to have written the tunes himself. This, despite a few stellar moments, is a not-quite-tragic-enough meditation on mourning and self-healing, crossed with a not-quite-gritty-enough portrait of indie rockers trying to break big.

The Zero Theorem ** Directed by Terry Gilliam. Living in isolation in a burnt-out church, Qohen (Christoph Waltz), an eccentric and reclusive computer genius plagued with existential angst, is obsessively working on a mysterious project personally delegated to him by Management (Matt Damon) aimed at discovering the meaning of life, or the complete lack of one, once and for all. Orwellian paranoia doesn’t die, it just gets fresh trimmings, and while The Zero Theorem is as messy and overstuffed as Fibber McGilliam’s closet (OK, I’m dating myself here), its sorrow and anger and demented humor strike just enough fresh sparks to keep his career alive.

White Bird in a Blizzard ** Directed by Gregg Araki. Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Chrisdtopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez, Gabourey Sidibe, Thomas Jane, Angela Bassett. A teenage girl’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother disappears. An odd little concoction, a coming-of-age story that, only in passing, is also a mystery.

Annabelle Directed by John R. Leonetti. A couple begins to experience terrifying supernatural occurrences involving a vintage doll shortly after their home is invaded by satanic cultists. Sadly, Annabelle, a cheap, sleazy, low-budget prequel meant to explain the origins of that particular doll, is as undistinguished, uninteresting, and unscary as the worst of the Chucky films.

Wolves Directed by David Hayter. Lucas Till, Stephen McHattie, Merritt Patterson, Jason Momoa. A boy trying to find out about his family history stumbles upon a town of lycans. If you’re in the bag for werewolves (or have a thing for hairy dudes smoking distinctive pipes), Wolves is a beckoning howl in the night. As an action movie, however, it’s surprisingly tame.

Mea culpa! Comments have been posted

I'm going to blame it on the fact that I relocated, but, whatever the reason, the system built into this blog failed to notify me that a number of individuals had commented on some of the articles I had posted. I stumbled onto that fact this morning, found the comments and all those outstanding comments have now been posted to their respective articles. So sorry about the delay. Believe me, I wasn't trying to silence anyone else's opinion. This is all about the free flow of ideas.

Monday, January 12, 2015

This Week’s DVD Releases

A real busy week.
(Click on title to see the film’s trailer)

Love Is Strange ***½ Directed by Ira Sachs. John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei. After 28 years together, Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) finally get hitched. But when the marriage raises controversy at the school where George works, he’s fired. Unable to afford their New York City apartment, the couple is forced to live apart. One of those lovely little movies that starts out being about a handful of people and ends up being about all of us. That’s a tricky act to pull off and the talented writer-director Sachs stumbles occasionally over moments of self-conscious lyricism. But when the film recovers its balance, looks at its characters with fondness and with faith, it quietly soars.

The Strange Little Cat ***½ Directed by Ramon Zürcher. Three generations of a middle-class clan gather in a Berlin flat during the course of a day. This kind of vérité surrealism doesn’t come along very often, and the glorious oddness that Zürcher manages to infuse into even the most routinely domestic activities is really the gift the film keeps on giving.

Gone Girl ***½ Directed by David Fincher. Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward. With his wife’s disappearance having become the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when it’s suspected that he may not be innocent. A rare movie: a delicious thriller that provides plenty of titillation and gruesome pleasure while offering a dollop of social commentary. It’s smart, twisted, bloody, and almost guaranteed to satisfy anyone with a penchant for the macabre.

Wetlands *** Directed by David Wnendt. When an embarrassing shaving accident lands rebellious teen Helen (Carla Juri) in the hospital, she develops an unlikely bond with her male nurse (Christoph Letkowski) who she seduces with stories of her sexual adventures while using her illness to reunite her divorced parents. Even though Wetlands is absolutely, brutally unrelenting in its depictions of bodily functions and searching adolescent sexuality, it’s also an inventively sharp, briskly edited, spectacularly-acted post-adolescent coming-of-age story.

Keep on Keepin’ On *** Directed by Alan Hicks. A documentary that follows jazz legend Clark Terry over four years to document the mentorship between Terry and 23-year-old blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin as the young man prepares to compete in an elite, international competition. One of the delights of this documentary is hearing Terry tell stories. Watching the movie feels as if you’ve sat down in someone else’s living room to hear tales of other legendary jazz musicians, such as Count Basie or Miles Davis.

Expedition to the End of the World *** Directed by Daniel Dencik. A three-mast schooner packed with artists, scientists and ambitions worthy of Noah or Columbus sails to the rapidly melting massifs of Northeast Greenland. The movie reveals some of the most stunning landscape cinematography imaginable, while everyone on the isolated ship waxes philosophical (which I guess I would do as well had I been in their place).

Middle of Nowhere *** Directed by Ava DuVernay. After her husband is sent to prison for eight years, medical student Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) shelves her studies to focus on her partner’s welfare as he serves his time. Nothing is easily resolved in this complex drama, which makes it all the more honestly moving. More than anything, this is a film about a woman on a journey of self-discovery, finding her way gingerly. (This film was released originally in 2012. It is coming out on DVD now to capitalize on the fact that DuVernay directed Selma, which is currently receiving a lot of Oscar buzz.)

Bird People *** Directed by Pacale Ferran. Josh Charles, Anais Dumoustier. In an airport hotel on the outskirts of Paris, a Silicon Valley engineer abruptly chucks his job, breaks things off with his wife, and holes up in his room. It’s a tricky proposition that will surely ruffle the feathers of many viewers, but one that also makes a curious, if lasting, impression, thanks in part to strong turns from Demoustier and Charles.

The Two Faces of January **½ Directed by Hossein Amini. Viggo Mortensen, Kristen Dunst, Oscar Isaac. A con artist, his wife, and a stranger flee Athens after one of them is caught up in the death of a private detective. A sun-splashed noir that loses its appeal in the last act.

Jimi: All Is By My Side **½ Directed by John Ridley.André Benjamin, Hayley Atwill, Imogen Poots. Chronicles Jimi Hendrix’s rise to fame and the personal demons he battled along the way. At times the movie feels absolutely authentic. More often, though, it’s meandering and melodramatic, with far too many scenes of Hendrix jabbering and squabbling with two key female figures in his life, and not enough of the music.

Honeymoon **½ Directed by Leigh Janiak. Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway. Soon after arriving at a secluded woodland cabin, a honeymooning couple sees their bliss evaporate when a sleepwalking incident leads to increasingly odd behavior by the bride. It waffles between dramatizing youthful self-absorption and succumbing to it, and this tonal instability comes to effectively mirror the domestic discord that’s revealed to be its real subject.

Finding Fela! **½ Directed by Alex Gibney. A documentary that looks at the life and music of Nigerian singer Fela Kuti. As a portrait of a great artist and activist, Finding Fela is worth a look, but it’s Gibney’s weakest work as a filmmaker.

Memphis **½ Directed by Tim Sutton. A strange singer with "God given talent" drifts through the mythic city of Memphis. This is a bold and bewildering conjuring act, that might mean nothing at all, but the sleight of hand is worth the price of a rental.

Bad Turn Worse **½ Directed by Simon Hawkins, Zeke Hawkins. Three Texas teens hope to make a break for it and escape their dead-end existence in a cotton-mill town but get sucked into the seedy underbelly of organized crime when one of them steals from a gangster. Though its influences (Badlands, early Coens) are writ large, and the denouement disappoints, the performances convince, the dialogue captivates and the sense of backwater boredom is overpowering.

A Walk Among the Tombstones **½ Directed by Scott Frank. Private investigator Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is hired by a drug kingpin to find out who kidnapped and murdered his wife. Unlike his tough guy roles in Taken or Non-Stop, Neeson is at least given some good dialogue. And he’s a lot more world-weary than kick-ass here.

21 Years: Richard Linklater ** Directed by Michael Dunaway, Tara Wood. The godfather of independent film is profiled in this survey of the first 21 years of the director’s career. It’s perhaps surprising that there aren’t more Linklater documentaries out there, considering how substantial, influential, and plain brilliant his body of work is. In the meantime, this one will have to do.

Young Ones ** Directed by Jake Paltrow. Michael Shannon, Nicholas Hoult, Elle Fanning, Kodi Smit-McPhee. As Earth withers in drought, farm owner Ernest (Shannon) defends his property and his children, Mary (Fanning) and Jerome (SmitMcPhee), from the harsh frontier. But Mary’s manipulative suitor plots to take Ernest’s land for a devious scheme, and Jerome is forced to fight back. The way it reaches to find the humanity in a place devoid of hope shows admirable attempt at a singular vision. But Paltrow overestimates the timeless nature of the story.

Alien Abduction ** Directed by Matty Beckerman. North Carolina’s Brown Mountain Lights phenomenon provides the grist for this saga that follows the vacationing Morris clan, whose camping trip becomes a living nightmare after a wrong turn leads to an encounter with aliens. Despite a neat narrative twist delivered during the end credits, this is ultimately a by-the-numbers enterprise that will please only the most undemanding renters.

Men, Women & Children Directed by Jason Reitman. Examines the countless ways the online landscape affects the relationships, communication and self-images of digital-age adolescents, whose parents try to contend with the pitfalls. Both heavy-handed and ham-fisted, this is a self-important morality tale where you can see everyone’s uppance coming long before it arrives.

Jessabelle Directed by Kevin Greutert. Recuperating at her father’s Louisiana home from an accident that’s left her unable to walk, Jessie (Sarah Snook) finds a gift from her long-dead mom and an angry ghost. The too-infrequent scare techniques are mostly by the book, rarely developing sufficient dread to heighten the film’s rather unremarkable climax.

The Culture High Directed by Brett Harvey. Joe Rogan, Snoop Dog, Sir Richard Branson, Wiz Khalifa. A documentary that explores the deep moral divisions and scientific controversy that fuels America’s political debate regarding the legalization of marijuana. Harvey has gotten the documentary look and format down pat, complete with generic and gratuitous nature and cityscape shots. Where he shows an amateurish hand is in the term-paper-like voice-over narration and the inclusion of underqualified talking heads.

Revenge of the Green DragonsDirected by Wai-Keung Lau, Andrew Loo. Two best friends rise through the ranks of New York’s Chinese underworld in the 1980s. In Lau and Loo’s telling, the off-the-boat indoctrination of young, undocumented Chinese families into vicious gangsterism is overstated and cartoonish, like The Warriors trying to pass itself off as a docudrama.

Viktor * Directed by Phillippe Martinez. Gerard Depardieu, Elizabeth Hurley. Viktor Lambert is serving a seven-year sentence for an art heist in his native France when, just months before his release, he learns of his son’s murder. Would be campy fun if it wasn’t so relentlessly tedious.

The Identical * Directed by Dustin Marcellino. Seth Green, Ashley Judd, Joe Pantoliano, Blake Rayne, Ray Liotta. Follows young Ryan Wade (Rayne) as he pursues a musical career, unaware that he’s the twin brother of a rock superstar. Embarrassing and weird.

Fugly! * Directed by Alfredo De Villa. John Leguizamo, Rhada Mitchell, Rosie Perez, Griffin Dunne. Fame proves elusive for comic Jesse Sanchez, who reflects on life from the bottom of a bathtub. It’s a comedy that’s so broad and cartoony that the occasional dramatic pivots seem diminished and ridiculous, like performing a soliloquy on a Chuck E. Cheese stage.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

There’s something (mathematically) screwy about this sentence

From an article on Page 1B of today’s Austin American Statesman involving the cold front that hit the area:

"The National Weather Service says stiff winds will be coming from the north, too, which should make for tricky driving east or west, fully 50 percent of the directions Central Texas motorists drive."

Monday, January 5, 2015

This Week’s DVD Releases

(Click on title to see the film’s trailer)
NOTE: It’s quite possible the best and the worst films to be released on DVD this year are both coming out this week.

Boyhood **** Directed by Richard Linklater. Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane. Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke. The life of a young man from age 6 to age 18. The greatest movies, the ones that stick with us, are those that hold up a mirror to the human condition and reflect something back at us that we too often manage to overlook. Boyhood is one of those movies, and with it Linklater proves he is among the best practitioners of that art.

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case *** Directed by Andreas Johnson. A documentary that reflects on artist Ai Weiwei’s battle against the lawsuit thrust upon him by the Chinese government in an effort to silence him. While Johnsen competently follows Ai over the course of more than a year of contemplation and anger, The Fake Case doesn’t introduce anything new to the equation, and mainly succeeds by virtue of its subject’s inherent appeal.

Get On Up *** Directed by Tate Taylor. Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer. Traces the legendary James Brown’s rocky road from humble origins to superstardom as the Godfather of Soul. A triumph — a messy, qualified triumph that even at 138 minutes makes an incomplete case for Brown’s meaning to American life and culture — but a triumph nevertheless.

Dinosaur 13 **½ Directed by Todd Douglas Miller. A documentary about the discovery of the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever found. Using home-video footage and talking-head interviews, Dinosaur 13 dramatically depicts the thrill of archaeological discovery. But the overbearing soundtrack and shots of weeping palaeontologists do feel a touch manipulative.

Ways to Live Forever **½ Directed by Gustavo Ron. Ben Chaplin, Emilia Fox, Greta Scacchi. Like most inquisitive boys, 12-year-old Sam wants to know about UFOs, horror movies, ghosts, and girls. Sam also has leukemia, and although his mother and father don’t want him to dwell on it, Sam wants to know everything about his disease and death, a possibility he might face. A little wan but a lot likable, Ron’s film is a forthright and surprisingly buoyant drama about facing death before you have really lived.

Horns ** Directed by Alexandre Aja. Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Kelli Garner, Heather Graham, David Morse, Kathleen Quinlan, James Remar. In the aftermath of his girlfriend’s mysterious death, a young man awakens to find strange horns sprouting from his temples. This seems to have been made by people who couldn’t decide if their film was a horror flick, a whodunit, or a Hellboy knockoff.

The Houses October Built ** Directed by Bobby Roe. Looking to find an authentic, blood-curdling good fright for Halloween, five friends set off on a road trip in an RV to track down a legendary underground haunt. If you’re relatively easily scared or are in a room full of people who are, the film might be good for a few screams. But only if you’re the patient sort. It takes almost an hour to get to the good stuff.

Two Night StandDirected by Max Nichols. Miles Teller, Analeigh Tipton. After an ill-considered one-night stand, two young New Yorkers are obliged to extend their time together when a paralyzing snowstorm strikes the city, confining the pair to a small cramped apartment. Two Night Stand is a one-act sex comedy badly in need of two more acts, not nights.

The Longest Week Directed by Peter Glanz. Jenny Slate, Olivia Wilde, Billy Crudup, Jason Bateman. After his wealthy parents divorce, 40-year-old Conrad Valmont (Bateman) loses his generous living allowance and posh hotel digs. It takes effort to turn a movie with a cast as appealing as the one in The Longest Week into a grating exercise in narcissism, but writer/director Glanz proves up to the task.

No Good Deed * Directed by Sam Miller. Taraji P. Henson, Idris Elba. An unstable escaped convict terrorizes a woman who is alone with her two children. By its end, No Good Deed becomes troublingly easy to read as a parable about the untrustworthiness of black men. The filmmakers, hopefully, may not have intended it that way, but the movie is so bereft of anything else that its forays into moralistic paranoia stick out.

Left Behind ½* Directed by Vic Armstrong. Nicolas Cage, Chad Michael Murray, Cassi Thompson, Nicky Whelan, Jordin Sparks. A small group of survivors are left behind after millions of people suddenly vanish and the world is plunged into chaos and destruction. Good God almighty: Not since Edward D. Wood Jr. unleashed a flotilla of paper-plate UFOs on beautiful downtown Burbank has there been a movie as stem-to-stern inept as this adaptation of the bestselling Christian novel series.

Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt (no stars) Directed by James Manera. The few remaining entrepreneurs in a country whose economy is on the verge of collapse rise up against a bureaucracy that’s squeezing the lifeblood out of the populace. The movie’s so slipshod and half-assed that I almost feel for author Ayn Rand, whose ideas have proved enduring enough that they at least deserve a fair representation, if only for the sake of refutation.

Monday, December 29, 2014

New movies released on DVD in 2014: From best to worst

4-star films
1.  12 Years a Slave
2.  Gravity
3.  Inside Llewyn Davis
4.  American Hustle
5.  Her
6.  Ida
7.  The Act of Killing

3 1/2-star films
8.  The Grand Budapest Hotel
9.  Blue Is the Warmest Color
10. All Is Lost
11. We Are the Best!
12. The Missing Picture
13. Nebraska
14. The Great Beauty
15. Ernest & Celestine
16. Fruitvale Station
17. The Past
18. Dallas Buyers Club
19. Snowpiercer
20. Captain Phillips
21. The Lego Movie
22. The Wind Rises
23. Gloria
24. 20 Feet From Stardom
25. The Selfish Giant
26. The Spectacular Now
27. Short Term 12
28. Stranger By the Lake
29. Cutie and the Boxer
30. Locke
31. Wadjda
32. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
33. Pride
34. Jodorowsky's Dune
35. In a World
36. Blue Jasmine
37. Only Lovers Left Alive
38. Enough Said
39. Under the Skin

3-star films
40. Calvary
41. Blue Ruin
42. Mother of George
43. Abuse of Weakness
44. Guardians of the Galaxy
45. Philomena
46. How to Train Your Dragon 2
47. Obvious Child
48. Tim's Vermeer
49. The Lunchbox
50. The Guest
51. Blue Caprice
52. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
53. Rush
54. The Invisible Woman
55. The Wolf of Wall Street
56. Night Moves
57. The Trip to Italy
58. Frank
59. Omar
60. The Punk Singer
61. The Dance of Reality
62. Frozen
63. X-Men: Days of Future Past
64. Joe
65. The Skeleton Twins
66. Finding Vivian Maier
67. A Most Wanted Man
68. Cold in July
69. Like Father, Like Son
70. Le Weekend
71. The Grandmaster
72. 22 Jump Street
73. Edge of Tomorrow
74. The Raid 2
75. The Broken Circle Breakdown
76. We Are What We Are
77. Fed Up
78. Captain America: Winter Soldier
79. Happy Christmas
80. The Fault in Our Stars
81. Palo Alto
82. The Unknown Known
83. Venus in Furs
84. Noah
85. Neighbors
86. Chef
87. Land Ho!
88. The Double
89. Inequality for All
90. The Armstrong Lie
91. Korengal
92. The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

2 1/2-star films
93. Lee Daniels' The Butler
94. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
95. You're Next
96. Alan Partridge
97. The One I Love
98. Borgman
99. Saving Mr. Banks
100. The Good Lie
101. Kill Your Darlings
102. Nymphomaniac Volume 1
103. Belle
104. The Rover
105. Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon
106. The Patience Stone
107. Chinese Puzzle
108. Kelly & Cal
109. Out of the Furnace
110. Young & Beautiful
111. The Congress
112. Big Bad Wolves
113. A Coffee in Berlin
114. Godzilla
115. Begin Again
116. Veronica Mars
117. About Last Night
118. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
119. Muppets Most Wanted
120. Oculus
121. Lone Survivor
122. Nymphomaniac Volume II
123. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
124. Enemy
125. They Came Together
126. Breathe In
127. Life of Crime
128. Great Expectations
129. What If
130. The Railway Man
131. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
132. Mr. Peabody and Sherman
133. The Best Man Holiday
134. Go for Sisters
135. Hateship Loveship
136. August: Osage County
137. Fading Gigolo
138. Dolphin Tale 2
139. Escape From Tomorrow
140. Deepsea Challenge
141. The Equalizer
142. Bad Words
143. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
144. How I Live Now
145. The Grand Seduction
146. 1,000 Times Good Night
147. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead
148. Million Dollar Arm
149. Non-Stop
150. Maleficent
151. The Maze Runner
152. Filth
153. For No Good Reason
154. The Fluffy Movie

2-star films
155. Dom Hemingway
156. About Time
157. I'm So Excited
158. The Hundred-Foot Journey
159. Tusk
160. Hellion
161. Thor: The Dark World
162. Magic in the Moonlight
163. Draft Day
164. Jersey Boys
165. Thanks for Sharing
166. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
167. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
168, Mood Indigo
169. The Amazing Spiderman 2
170. Earth to Echo
171. The Signal
172. The Book Thief
173. Carrie
174. The Monuments Men
175. Labor Day
176. Robocop
177. Cuban Fury
178. Ender's Game
179. Closed Circuit
180. Cesar Chavez
181. God's Pocket
182. The Face of Love
183. A Five Star Life
184. Half a Yellow Sun
185. The Purge: Anarchy
186. A.C.O.D.
187. Life After Beth
188. War Story
189. Riddick
190. Oldboy
191. Escape Plan
192. The Fifth Estate
193. Words and Pictures
194. The Sacrament
195. Afternoon Delight
196. Stalingrad
197. Rio 2
198. Elsa & Fred
199. The Counselor
200. Divergent
201. Last Vegas
202. 300: Rise of an Empire
203. Planes: Fire & Rescue
204. Black Nativity
205. In Secret
206. The Giver
207. Heaven Is For Real
208. Hercules
209. At the Devil's Door
210. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
211. If I Stay
212. Step Up: All In

1 1/2-star films
213. A Million Ways to Die in the West
214. This Is Where I Leave You
215. Delivery Man
216. Into the Storm
217. Wish I Was Here
218. Stephen King's A Good Marriage
219. Transcendence
220. Devil's Knot
221. Austenland
222. Machete Kills
223. Ride Along
224. The Quiet Ones
225. Sabotage
226. Romeo and Juliet
227. When the Game Stands Tall
228. Deliver Us From Evil
229. Brick Mansions
230. 3 Days to Kill
231. Homefront
232. Last Weekend
233. The Other Woman
234. Tammy
235. Pompeii
236. Need for Speed
237. And So It Goes
238. Free Birds
239. Think Like a Man Too
240. The Jungle Book 2
241. As Above, So Below
242. The November Man
243. Third Person
244. Gimme Shelter
245. Walking with Dinosaurs
246. The Nut Job
247. Are You Here
248. Son of God
249. That Awkward Moment
250. Sex Tape
251. Runner Runner
252. The Expendables 3
253. Grudge Match
254. Diana
255. A Long Way Down
256. Baggage Claim

1-star films
257. The Christmas Candle
258. The Hero of Color City
259. Transformers: Age of Extinction
260. Blended
261. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
262. Winter's Tale
263. Let's Be Cops
264. Endless Love
265. I, Frankenstein
266. Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas
267. 47 Ronin
268. Cam2Cam
269. Mom's Night Out
270. Legend of Oz: Dorothy's Return

1/2-star films
271. Reach Me
272. Kite


This Weeks’ DVD Releases

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

Kelly & Cal **½ Directed by Jen McGowan. Juliette Lewis. Struggling with the challenges of parenthood, a dispirited young mother (Lewis) finds an unlikely friend and confidante in her paralyzed teenage neighbor (Jonny Weston). It’s easy to see how an unhappy transition to suburban mommyhood might be enough to unhinge any self-respecting former punk rocker but, even so, it’s a little hard to take the angst-ridden mid-life shenanigans in Kelly & Cal seriously.

The Equalizer **½ Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Denzel Washington, Chloë Grace Moretz, Melissa Leo, Bill Pulman. A former intelligence operative comes out of retirement to help a young prostitute, only to end up in the Russian Mafia’s crosshairs. Bring on the sequel please, because, as fine as Denzel is, director Fuqua’s film is not so good — a self-consciously stylized, stop-and-start hodgepodge of Death Wish street vengeance, Bond-style Russian villainy, and moodily shot Boston locales.

Tusk ** Directed by Kevin Smith. Michael Parks, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez. When podcaster Wallace Bryton goes missing in the backwoods of Manitoba while interviewing a mysterious seafarer named Howard Howe, his best friend Teddy and girlfriend Allison team with an ex-cop to look for him. This is not a particularly good movie, but the vivid anxiety dream at its heart makes it one of the most personal films this writer-director has ever made.

Elsa & Fred ** Directed by Michael Radford. After losing his wife, Fred (Christopher Plummer) feels disturbed, confused and alone, so his daughter (Marcia Gay Harden) helps move him into a small apartment where he meets Elsa (Shirley Maclaine). The corny love story is all the more disappointing given the pedigree of the octogenarian actors.

Stephen King’s A Good Marriage Directed by Peter Askin. Joan Allen, Anthony LaPaglia. With a serial killer on the loose and a disheveled stranger stalking her, a devoted wife has further cause for alarm after she unwittingly uncovers an ominous secret about her husband that threatens their happy marriage. Comes off as curiously flat for a movie about a woman who sleeps next to a murderer every night.

Last Weekend Directed by Tom Dolby, Tom Williams. Patricia Clarkson. When an affluent matriarch gathers her dysfunctional family for a holiday at their Northern California lake house, her carefully constructed weekend begins to come apart at the seams. The characters flutter about, argue and flirt, but they are simply too bland and vacuous to make much of an impression. It doesn’t help that half of them serve no purpose other than to fill the camera frame.

Reach Me ½* Directed by John Herzfeld. Danny Aiello, Tom Berenger, Lauren Cohan, Kevin Connolly, Terry Crews, Cary Elwes, Kelsey Grammer, Omari Hardwick, Elizabeth Henstridge, Thomas Jane, Ryan Kwanten, Nelly, David O’Hara, Kyra Sedgwick, Tom Sizemore, Sylvester Stallone, Danny Trejo. A motivational book written by a mysterious man quickly gains popularity, inspiring a group of people that includes a journalist, his editor, a former inmate, a hip-hop mogul, an actor and an undercover cop to re-evaluate their choices and decisions by confronting their fears in hopes of creating more positive lives. A misbegotten venture that constantly ups its own ante on histrionic overacting, ludicrous plot twists and insipid empowerment mantras.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Oh, mama, is this really the end?

A few observations before I plunge head first into the holidays.

  • The Austin chapter of the Society of Financial Service Professionals took out a full page advertisement in today’s Austin American Statesman that features the name, affiliation and mugshot of each of its members. I’m not sure it was the wisest thing to do, at least in these times. There are 27 mugs on the page: 23 white men and 4 white woman. It looks like shots of the Republican Congressional leadership group. C’mon gang, there’s got to be a "financial service professional" of color somewhere in Austin you will allow into your Klan.
  • There’s also a story in today’s newspaper about a troublemaker in the East Texas town of Rusk who thought he should be able to put up a non-religious display alongside the nativity scene on view behind the county courthouse. The powers-that-be followed the East Texas non-tolerant script verbatim and told that lad "You gotta be kidding me. Get outta here." So the lad, along with a few of his friends demonstrated outside the courthouse where they were greeted with a typical East Texas neck holding a sign that said "If this was back in Bible times, all y’all would’ve been stoned." Yeah, boy, that’s the Christian spirit!
  • The best line I’ve heard recently comes in a commercial for, of all things, a cellphone app for a war game in which a rather healthy looking blonde woman encourages her troops about to go into battle by telling them: "You have absolutely nothing to fear except for what’s about to come out of those woods."

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.