Monday, April 27, 2015

Thius week's DVD releases

Last Days in Vietnam ***½ Directed by Rory Kennedy. This documentary recounts the Vietnam War’s final days, when unexpected roadblocks threatened the evacuation of America’s South Vietnamese allies. At once riveting and heartbreaking. This youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy has the good sense — far rarer among documentarians than you’d like to think — not to get in the way of her material.

Inherent Vice ***½ Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benecio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short. In 1970, a drug-fueled Los Angeles detective investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend. An aggressively weird movie, which you should take not as a warning but as a compliment and an invitation to rent it, to watch it and to let its stoner vibes wash all over you.

Paddington *** Directed by Paul King. Starring Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Nicole KidmanBen Whishaw. A young Peruvian bear travels to London in search of a home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he meets the kindly Brown family, who offer him a temporary haven. Because of its adorable protagonist, laugh-out-loud gags and touching premise, Paddington succeeds in a way most CGI/live-action hybrids do not.

Mommy *** Directed by Xavier Dolan. A widowed single mother, raising her violent son alone, finds new hope when a mysterious neighbor inserts herself into their household. It feels like living inside a pressure cooker with one particular family — experiencing their turbulence as if from the inside, while always a little glad to be watching from a safe distance.

Appropriate Behavior *** Directed by Desiree Akhavan. As a bisexual Iranian-American, Shirin doesn’t quite fit in to her perfect Persian family -- and she can’t make a relationship work. So she goes on a journey of self-discovery and sexual adventure in an effort to come to terms with her identity. The film jumps back and forth to Shirin’s unraveling relationship with her girlfriend, but what stands out are the funny, awkward, sometimes painful moments with her family and with various hook-ups — topped off by a delicate, nuanced and satisfying final scene.

Boy Meets Girl *** Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Growing up in conservative Kentucky, Ricky (Michelle Hendley) has always regarded himself as a woman in a male’s body but isn’t able to make a connection with the right man. Often, it feels conspicuously educational. The movie works best when it focuses on its intimate story of love between family and friends in a small town.

The Gambler ** Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Brie Larson. Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is living two distinct lives: Besides working as a college professor, he’s a compulsive gambler who’s deeply in debt to a loan shark. While scrambling to save his skin, Jim also becomes involved with one of his students. Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) doesn’t match the feverish nature of Karel Reisz’s original, and the gambling sequences convey the sameness of a habit but not as much tension to it.

The Barber Directed by Basel Owies. Starring Scott Glenn, Chris Coy, Stephen Tobolowsky. Decades after his detective father committed suicide for failing to put serial killer Eugene Van Wingerdt behind bars, the lawman’s son resolves to bring him to justice — by posing as an aspiring murderer looking to become Eugene’s protégé. Glenn handles the balancing act required of him in The Barber with his usual skill. The film, though, delivers its plot twists muddily and doesn’t really distinguish itself from the countless other creepy-killer tales out there.

The Devil’s Violinist Directed by Bernard Rose, Starring David Garrett, Jared Harris, Joely Richardson. The life story of Italian violinist and composer, Niccolò Paganini, who rose to fame as a virtuoso in the early 19th Century. Rose’s elegantly staged but tonally flat biopic embraces the myth, even underscoring Paganini’s rising fame, scandalous hedonism, and womanizing as an anachronistic form of rock-star fantasy.

50 to 1 Directed by Jim Wilson. Starring Skeet Ulrich, Christian Kane, William Devane. Tells the story behind Mine That Bird, the underdog horse that defied the odds to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby. While the film isn’t without charming moments — the Derby sequence is entertaining — the lack of narrative sophistication grates.

The Wedding Ringer Directed by Jeremy Garelick. Starring Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco. Two weeks shy of his wedding, a socially awkward guy enters into a charade by hiring the owner of a company that provides best men for grooms in need. Despite the considerable charisma of Hart and Gad and a strong supporting cast, The Wedding Ringer has only one or two genuinely inspired bits of comedy, a few dopey moments when you laugh in spite of yourself — and long, long stretches of pointless montages, loud and unfunny physical shtick and far too much reliance on gay "humor."

The Boy Next Door * Directed by Rob Cohen. Starring Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, John Corbett, Kristin Chenoweth. Adjusting to life without her husband, a recently separated mom is pleased when a teenage boy moves into the neighborhood and befriends her son. But before long, she becomes intimately involved with the teen and comes to regret it. Breathless, uninspired junk that feels like the iffiest bits of a Lifetime movie and late-night cable schlock slapped together. (And not erotically.)

Affluenza * Directed by Kevin Asch. Starring Ben Rosenfield, George Sulkin, Nicola Peltz, Grane Gustin, Samantha Mathis, Steve Guttenberg. An aspiring young photographer finds himself caught up in a heady world of money, sex, and privilege when he moves to wealthy Long Island in the summer of 2008. A splashy-looking yet depressingly empty exercise that is never more shallow than the times when it tries to go deep.

Always Woodstock * Directed by Rita Merson. Starring Allison Miller, Brittany Snow, Jason Ritter, Katey Segal, James Wolk, Rumer Willis. With her life in upheaval, frustrated songwriter Catherine Brown retreats to her vacant family home in Woodstock, N.Y., to review her priorities. With its faux small-town values, faux countercultural ethos and faux personal struggles, Merson’s debut feature skews closer to delusion than honesty.

Accidental Love ½* Directed by David O. Russell. Starring Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhall, Catherine Keener, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan, James Brolin. After a freak accident lodges a nail in uninsured Alice Eckle’s (Biel) head, her crusade for health care takes her to Capitol Hill. Given Russell’s involvement and a fairly solid cast that includes Gyllenhaal and Keener, just how awful could it be? Really awful. Unwatchably awful. As in, "Give it the Razzie now and be done with it" awful.

Monday, April 20, 2015

This week's major DVD Releases

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ***½ Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. In the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and loneliness, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire. The plot’s tired blood is jumped up considerably by style; all in all, it’s an intoxicating blend of eerie horror and ‘80s pop, made by an artist to keep an eye on.

Cake ** Directed by Daniel Barnz. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington. A woman becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group while grappling with her own, very raw personal tragedy. This film is the sort of well-intentioned independent effort that can make criticism feel like overkill. There’s nothing to hate, nothing to love. The movie’s greatest virtue is that it gives Aniston a little room to play against the somewhat sardonic tough-cookie type that she deploys in vulgar comedies.

Walter Directed by Anna Mastro. Starring Andrew J. West, Justin Kirk, Neve Campbell, Leven Rambin, Milo Ventimiglia, Jim Gaffigan, Brian White, Peter Facinelli, Virginia Madsen, William H. Macy. Walter, a ticket-taker at the local cinema believes he is the son of God. He has agreed to decide the eternal fate of everyone he comes in to contact with. Much of Walter’s behavior resembles, at very least, a movie version of mental illness, only to have the story reclassify it as a coping mechanism. This unwittingly makes the character seem as affected as any Sundance stereotype — and the movie disturbing for all the wrong reasons.

Everly Directed by Joe Lynch. Starring Salma Hayek. After a call girl betrays her crime boss lover to the police, he offers a $50,000 bounty to anyone who can kill her. Trapped inside her apartment, she must fight off an endless tide of assassins to survive. Yet another boring ode to heavy breathing that’s offered under the hypocritical pretense of celebrating female empowerment.

Taken 3 * Directed by Olivier Megaton. Starring Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Forest Whitaker. A former CIA operative is framed for murder and must use his covert skills to keep himself alive while trying to prove his innocence. Sadly, the sequel isn’t even so bad as to be memorable. Instead, it’s vaporous, not even possessing the qualities indicating that anyone involved cared about any detail of the film.

Monday, April 13, 2015

This Week's Major DVD Releases

The Babadook ***½ Directed by Jennifer Kent. Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinny, Barbara West, Ben Winspear. A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her. The feature debut of writer-director Kent is not just genuinely, deeply scary, but also a beautifully told tale of a mother and son, enriched with layers of contradiction and ambiguity.

Goodbye to Language *** Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Starring Héloïse Godet, Kamel Abdeli, Richard Chevallier. A drama that puts an adulterous couple in the midst of a chorus of voices and kaleidoscopic images denouncing the ills of modern society. Godard’s full length take on 3D is bold, brilliant and exactly what the format needed — a iconoclast taking it and making his own, and almost every time he frames a shot in three dimensions, from opening credits to the final moments, there’s something attention-grabbing going on. It looses a little on standard television screens, however.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice *** Directed by Anthony Powell. A chronicle of what it is like to live in Antarctica for a full year, including winters isolated from the rest of the world, and enduring months of darkness in the coldest place on Earth. The extremes of the film might seem routine to fans of nature documentaries, but photographer/director Powell produces some dazzling imagery in his droll study of isolation way, way down under.

Maps to the Stars *** Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasilowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, Sarah Gadon. A tour into the heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts. Cronenberg’s map doesn’t lead to a satisfying destination in a typical story sense, but it is a remarkable quest. For a movie that has so many problems, it is one of the more watchable ones.

Big Eyes **½ Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman. A drama about the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s. Entertaining in spots, obvious and irritating in others, with a one-note schticky performance from Waltz, this is a strangely conventional entry in Burton’s filmography.

God Help the Girl **½ Directed by Stuart Murdoch. Starring Emily Browning, Hannah Murray, Olly Alexander. A young girl, whose gift for songwriting sees her through a troubled life, winds up in Glasgow, where she finally meets others who share her passion. While Murdoch exhibits masterful control in a recording studio, he isn’t a natural-born filmmaker. Much of this film feels haphazardly stitched together, with pieces missing or placed in the wrong order, as though he didn’t get all the footage he needed.

You’re Not You **½ Directed by George C. Wolfe. Starring Hilary Swank, Emmy Rossum, Josh Duhamel, Loretta Devine, Ernie Hudson, Frances Fisher, Marcia Gay Harden, Ali Larter, Jason Ritter, Julian McMahon, Andrea Savage. Finding her life upended after being diagnosed with a fatal illness, a classical pianist inexplicably hires her polar opposite — a flighty college student — as a caregiver. Here’s the frustrating thing about You’re Not You: Wolfe clearly knows what he’s doing and has the actors to pull it off, but he’s tasteful to a fault. Great melodramas achieve the sublime by risking ridicule, something which You’re Not You does only once.

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death Directed by Tom Harper. Starring Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Helen McCrory, Adrian Rawlins, Leanne Best, Ned Dennehy. Evacuated from London to a long-deserted country estate during World War II, a group of orphans and their teacher think they’ve found refuge. Soon, however, the youngsters’ odd behavior reveals a force even more evil than what they were fleeing. Every good idea this sequel has to offer winds up taking a backseat to the most obvious cat-in-the-closet "BOO!" moments imaginable.

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken * Directed by Daniel Alfredson. Starring Jim Sturgess, Sam Worthington, Ryan Kwanten, Anthony Hopkins, Mark van Eeuwen, Tom Cocquerel, Jemima West. The inside story of the planning, execution, rousing aftermath and ultimate downfall of the kidnappers of beer tycoon Alfred "Freddy" Heineken, which resulted in the largest ransom ever paid for an individual. A dull, trite thriller.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A radical idea for basketball

I've been hearing a lot of talk recently about ways to "speed up" the game of basketball, especially college basketball. Television viewership is one the decline and many attribute it to the slow pace of the game. Personally I think it's a bunch of hooey.

The real reason why viewership down is the so-called "one-and-done" rule in college basketball. The average viewer doesn't watch a basketball team to see a particular team, unless, of course, you're a diehard follower of that particular team. They tune in to see their favorite players in action. I think more people are going to watch an Oklahoma City Thunder game so see Russell Westbrook in action than they will because they are rooting for the Thunder. I watch a lot of Golden State games because I get a big kick out of watching Seth Curry and Klay Thompson effortlessly hit those three pointers from ridiculous distances and sometimes in seemingly impossible situations. When he was healthy, I watched the Laker games to see Kobe in action. He always amazed me at least once per game.

But it took time for the reputations of Russell and Seth and Klay and Kobe to develop. I never went out of my way to watch them during their rookie seasons because I didn't have enough information on them yet to compel me to watch.

The college game, on the other hand, is composed entirely of "rookies" or upperclassman like Rick Kaminsky of Wisconsin no one outside the immediate Big 10 community knows anything about until tournament time.

The powers-that-be have come up with two solutions to speed make the college game more inviting to viewers. Shorten the 35-second shot clock down to, if not at the NBA level of 24 seconds, at least to 30 seconds. If the college game wants to do that, it's fine with me although I don't think it will have a significant impact. I watched a whole lot of college basketball during the NCAA tournament and I would be willing to bet that in at least 90 percent of the total possessions, the team with the ball took a shot before 30 seconds expired on the 35-second shot clock. Another solution is to move what I call the charge arc -- that semi-circle painted just outside the basket that determines whether a charging foul should be called -- a foot further out in the court. I can't see how that would have any impact whatsoever on the pace of the game, but if someone out there would like to try to convince me, go for it.

Now, if these guys were really serious about not only quickening the pace of the game but in making the overall product better they could take the simple step of eliminating the single most boring play in all of basketball -- namely, the free throw.

Nothing, not a single thing other than a time-out or the end of a period brings the pace of a basketball game to a grinding halt faster than having everyone stop playing in order to form two lines while one player stands 15 feet from the basket and takes one or two shots at the dang thing. End the practice right now. Get rid of it.

Instead, if a team is fouled, that team is awarded a single point as well as the ball out of bounds at the closest point to where the foul occurred. If a team is fouled in the last two minutes of a period, they are awarded two points and the ball out of bounds. A flagrant foul results in two points; a flagrant foul in the last two minutes is three.

Think of all the other positive ways this would impact the game. It would practically eliminate the "Hack-a-Shaq" philosophy of some coaches who will purposely foul poor free-throw shooters on the opposing team. Instead, these coaches are going to have to teach their players how to defend properly, and I see nothing wrong with that. It would also mean that the last two minutes of each game don't last a seeming eternity where all we see is a constant parade of players to the free  throw line.

Now I know this idea won't get any traction because it is radical even though it makes perfect sense and has no downsides except to those who "respect the purity of the original game." But basketball came up with the radical idea of the 3-point play. Remember, the NBA only adopted the 3-point play at the beginning of the 1979 basketball season and college basketball only set a standard 3-point arc of 20 feet, 9 inches for all NCAA teams in time for the 2008-09 season.

So change can come and now is the time to change the rules on personal fouls.

Monday, April 6, 2015

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

A Most Violent Year ***½ Directed by J.C. Chandor. Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Christopher Abbott, Peter Gerety, Alessandro Nivola. Amid New York City’s crime-filled winter of 1981, immigrant Abel Morales and his wife try to operate a successful business, only to see their efforts threatened by the lawless atmosphere permeating the streets. Stylish, sophisticated, simmering crime and character drama with Shakespearean dimension and bravura performances. Who knew heating oil could be a sexy subject?

The Immigrant *** Directed by James Gay. Starring. Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner. After arriving in New York, a Polish immigrant must provide for her ill sister — and soon falls under the thumb of a charming thug, who forces her into a life of prostitution. But when she falls for a magician, her fortunes turn. This is the first film Gray has made with a female protagonist — he wrote the part specifically for Cotillard — and he gives the character the same resilience and resourcefulness usually reserved in movies for men.

The Voices **½ Directed by Marjane Satrapi. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver. Leading a quiet bachelor existence, acfactory employee develops a crush on a lovely girl from accounting but ends up killing her by accident. However, his suddenly verbal cat and dog are there to help him consider his next move. Satrapi makes some bad calls in her attempts to balance bleak humor with bleaker thrills, including ending the film on a glibly cheerful note. Her best decision, bar none, was entrusting such heavy material to the guy who played Van Wilder. Behind that perpetual smirk lurks a talent for quiet depravity. Bonkers looks good on him.

Monday, March 30, 2015

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Wild *** Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman. A chronicle of one woman’s 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe. While the wilderness vistas are starkly beautiful, there’s no tangible sense of the heroine’s ultimate goal. (Why Oregon?) And the flashbacks, which include scenes of sexual misadventure and heroin use, are too brief to provide answers.

Interstellar *** Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley. A team of explorers travel through a wormhole in an attempt to ensure humanity’s survival. While it reaches for the stars, director Nolan’s film is a flawed masterpiece. The story is ever-ambitious, sometimes riveting and thought-provoking, but also plodding and hokey and not as visionary as its cutting-edge special effects.

The Imitation Game *** Directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley. During World War II, mathematician Alan Turing tries to crack the Enigma code with help from fellow mathematicians. It’s a good story, a sad story, a story of triumph and prejudice and terrible hypocrisy. And Cumberbatch aces it all — another smartly realized but deeply soulful performance from an actor who seemingly can do no wrong.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What in heaven's name is Cruz up to this time?

One of the many things I love about this country is that this is a land whose people will never elect Ted Cruz as its president. So why did he make this semi ripple yesterday when he staged this mini-event in front of a bunch of right-wing college students — all of whom we forced to attend and a significant number of whom wore Rand Paul t-shirts? One news moderator stated flat out last night that what Cruz did was to announce his candidacy for vice-president.

I don’t get it. What Republican seriously hoping to buck the political tide to win the presidency in 2016 would be so stupid as to name Cruz as his running mate. Wait a minute … there was that fellow from Arizona for whom I had a modest amount of respect for until he pulled the all-time political boner by naming Sarah Palin for vice president. So I guess when it comes to that, anything is possible.

But then Palin was largely an unknown in the thawed out sections of the country. Cruz is anything but. And he goes out of his way to alienate other Republicans. I have heard him referred to many times as "the most hated man in Congress." Listen to his speech yesterday. It was all about criticizing other Republicans for not agreeing with his wacko views.

Cruz will do well where the IQ of the Republican voter is not all that high — Iowa, South Carolina and, of course, right here in Texas. But is he hoping to leverage that into … well, what exactly?

I think Cruz is all about ego and his candidacy has nothing to do with realistic expectations. Unlike Palin, Cruz is not stupid. He’s got something up his sleeve besides any honest-to-heavens belief he could actually one day become president. But what is it? Is it merely to drive the Republican debate and platform so far to the right that it plunges right over the cliff? Does he want to be the one presiding over the wreckage he alone causes?

Since he became a U.S. senator every single strategic move he has tried to thwart one of President Obama’s programs has failed miserably. I can’t see how this latest one can succeed either —no way, no how.

Monday, March 23, 2015

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Into the Woods *** Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Chris Prine, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt. A witch tasks a childless baker and his wife with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree. The first two-thirds of the film, which are like the Brothers Grimm’s Greatest Hits on laughing gas, have a fizzy, fairy-dust energy. But as soon as the baker couple’s scavenger hunt is over and a rampaging giant appears, Woods loses its magic and momentum and sags like an airless balloon.

Unbroken **½ Directed by Angelina Jolie. Starring Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Jai Courtney, Jack O’Connell, Alex Russell, John D’Leo. After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. With what I see on the screen weighted too much toward pain and too little toward redemption, this is a film I respect more than love, and that is something of a wasted opportunity.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies **½ Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Evangeline Lilly, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Luke Evans. Bilbo and Company are forced to engage in a war against an array of combatants and keep the Lonely Mountain from falling into the hands of a rising darkness. The finale is not an all-out disappointment. It should satisfy the franchise’s fans, and it does wrap up any loose ends you might be wondering about.

Song One ** Directed by Kate Barker-Froyland. Starring Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, Ben Rosenfield, Lola Kirke, Paul Whitty, Dan Deacon. A young woman strikes up a relationship with her ailing brother’s favorite musician. The movie, which marks the director’s feature debut, has the low-key appeal of Once, with its extended scenes of music and drama-free romantic subplot. But the characters in Song One are stubbornly bland, despite their quirks.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A few thoughts about this year's men's NCAA basketball tournament

This tournament is one of the few times that, given the choice between one team and the field, I would bet on the one team.

The two best teams in the tournament not named Kentucky are Wisconsin and Arizona. Unfortunately, they are both in the West bracket.

The final game I would love to see would be Kentucky vs. Wisconsin, but the way the tournament is set up, they would meet in a semifinal game. I see Kentucky shellacking Duke 77-62 in the finals.

There will be upsets, but most of them will come in the early rounds. As the tournament progresses, chalk will prevail. In fact, this year’s Final Four should consist of three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 (Virginia).

The major upsets I see in the first round are Buffalo over West Virginia and Texas over Butler in the Midwest, BYU over Xavier in the West and Eastern Washington over Georgetown in the South.

The biggest upset I see in round two is North Carolina State knocking off No 1 seed Villanova in the East. (A mild upset in the East is Northern Iowa defeating Louisville.) Other significant upsets I’m predicting in round two are Wichita State over 2-seed Kansas in the Midwest and BYU over 3-seed Baylor in the West.

I see an Elite 8 consisting of three No. 1 seeds ( Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke), two No. 2s (Arizona and Virginia), two 3s (Notre Dame and Iowa State) and one eighth-seed (North Carolina State).

Word to the wise: Don’t wager large amounts of money on what I’ve just said. I’m never correct about these things.

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Song of the Sea ***½ Directed by Tomm Moore. This animated tale follows young Saoirse, the last of a magical race of beings who exist as seals in water but turn into humans on land. After she and her brother are sent to live in the city, they begin an epic quest to return to their seaside home. Differentiated not only by its rich visual design — grayer and more subdued than The Secret of Kells, yet still a marvel to behold — but also by its ethereal musical dimension, another collaboration between composer Bruno Coulais and Irish folk band Kila.

Top Five ***½ Directed by Chris Rock. Starring Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan. A comedian tries to make it as a serious actor when his reality-TV star fiancée talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her TV show. One of the most vibrant, sly romantic comedies to appear in theaters in 2014.

Low Down **½ Directed by Jeff Preiss. Starring John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Peter Dinklage. A look at the life of pianist Joe Albany from the perspective of his young daughter, Amy, as she watches him contend with his drug addiction during the 1960s and ‘70s jazz scene. Keeps the histrionics to a minimum, but the inertia of a good man failing to be a good father isn’t enough to sustain nearly two hours of reflection, especially when Preiss consistently suggests that telling Amy’s story from Joe’s perspective would have made for a much better film.

Penguins of Madagascar ** Directed by Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith. Penguins Skipper, Rico, Private and Kowalski team with a covert group, the North Wind, to stage an all-or-nothing showdown with the fiendish Dr. Octavius Brine. Strives to be entertaining, but for much of its run time it is so emotionally uninvolving that even the smallest children might find themselves bored.

Exodus: Gods and Kings ** Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley. Moses rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses, setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt. Illustrates a typical contradiction of commercial entertainment: By playing it safe, the movie fails to enrich the material, and never captures the energy that has made its narrative so captivating for millennia.

Annie * Directed by Will Gluck. Starring Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhané Wallis, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Cameron Diaz. A foster kid, who lives with her mean foster mom, sees her life change when business tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes her in. Gluck’s glam, grim re-imagining of the Depression-era musical about the hard-hearted rich man and the little girl who melts him, is truly depressing.

Friday, March 13, 2015

It's evident where Parker Rice learned his cowardly racism

Racists are cowards. That’s why some of the earliest known racists sought anonymity behind white sheets and traveled in packs. These days they still try to hide their identities and they are usually successful at it unless someone blows their cover on You Tube. And they still travel in packs and sometimes the packs are found on buses and are called fraternities.

Highland Park racist Parker Rice is one such coward. And now it seems he comes from a family of cowards. Like his fellow Dallas racist Levi Petit, Rice, instead of facing the consequences like a straight-up human being, he hid behind the facade of an all-too-polished written statement of "apology," which they bungled anyway by trying to blame others (that demon alcohol and those bad, bad boys who taught them the racist chant they were caught singing).

But Rice and his family had a wonderful opportunity to go a long way to make amends. A group of no more than 12 to 15 individuals "protested" outside of the Rice family home the night before last. Now if I’m the patriarch of the Rice family Klan, what I’m going to do is throw open the front door of that family home, invite those 12 to 15 people inside, and invite them to join our family for dinner and a sit-down discussion. I am going to ask them what is it I can do, what is it I or my son can say to you privately and/or to the world publicly, to make this thing better. I know it won’t go away. It’s a permanent stain that will never go way. But what can we do together to make it better? And then I would see how many of those things I could do and I would hope I could do every last one of them.

That’s what I would have done if I had been Papa Rice.

But what did Papa Rice do? He packed up the family and lit out for parts unknown. They ran away. They took the coward’s way out.

Monday, March 9, 2015

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Listen Up Philip *** Directed by Alex Ross Perry. Starring Jason Schwartzman, Elizabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de la Baume, Jonathan Pryce. A self-absorbed New York writer juggles the pressures of promoting his second book, watching his relationship deteriorate and living in an unforgiving city when his literary hero offers him an escape in the form of a summer home. The terrific cast all delves into the material full-bore, which contributes to its peculiar resonance. Perry may hate everyone and everything, but in making a show of it, he’s thoroughly entertaining.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb ** Directed by Shawn Levy. Starring Ben Stiller, Rebel Wilson, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Ben Kingsley. Security guard Larry Daley plunges into an adventure that transports him to a London museum, where he’s surrounded by a new set of artifacts. The special effects remain good, but the jokes are creaky, the sentiments are forced and the pop-historical lessons are obligatory.

Monday, March 2, 2015

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Foxcatcher ***½ Directed by Bennett Miller. Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Michael Hall, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave. Preparing for the 1988 Olympics, two sibling wrestlers cross paths with a paranoid schizophrenic millionaire. Rare is the drama that plumbs the quirky, unsettling depths of human nature like Foxcatcher. Simultaneously understated and grippingly edgy, this is an arresting examination of naivete, mismatched worlds and old-fashioned American oddness.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One **½ Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland. Katniss Everdeen is called on to lead her people in a rebellion against the all-powerful Capital. It’s a joyless, surpassingly dour enterprise, but one that fulfills its mission with Katniss’s own eagle-eyed efficiency and unsentimental somberness.

The Humbling **½ Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Al Pacino, Dianne Wiest, Greta Gerwig, Charles Grodin, Kyra Sedgwick. A stage actor who is slowly losing his mind engages in a relationship with a sexually confused younger woman. Should have been more brisk, should have been cut, and should have had more of the Pacino who finishes this thing off with a flourish. The soul searching and sense of a life misspent are interesting. But there’s an awful lot of hooey before we get to the "Hoo hah."

The Better Angels ** Directed by A.J. Edwards. Starring Brit Marling, Diane Kruger, Jason Clarke, Wes Bentley. The story of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood in the harsh wilderness of Indiana and the hardships that shaped him. In the absence of a more conventional storytelling approach, this series of brief, fragmented glimpses of the harsh challenges that shaped Lincoln’s early life never allows you to get sufficiently close to its celebrated subject.

The Last of Robin Hood ** Directed by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland. Starring Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, Susan Sarandon. The last days in the life of actor Errol Flynn. Veers between disapproval, farce and something uncomfortably close to envy, with a trio of game performances barely holding things together.

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.