Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Pre-season rank in parenthesis

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

Monday, September 1, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


Night Moves ***½ Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard. With their collective eye fixed on blowing up a hydroelectric dam, a pair of young environmentalists enlist the help of an ex-military explosives expert to carry out a dangerous act of eco-terrorism. Don’t expect Hitchcock or De Palma here — Reichardt is much too low-key and modest for such crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics — but one long, sustained shot near the end seems to suggest that people who are convinced they are doing the right thing are capable of great evil.

They Came Together *** Directed by David Wain. Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler. Candy company executive Joel falls for Molly, who owns a corner candy store he’s tasked with closing. This rough-edged parody feels both distinctive and handmade, and for those reasons alone it’s a hard movie to hate, even when it temporarily loses its comic footing. Anyway, as romantic comedies down the ages have taught us, hatred is just a latent form of love.

For No Good Reason **½ Directed by Charlie Paul. Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Richard E. Grant, Terry Gilliam, Jann Wenner. Depp pays a visit to Steadman, the artist and the last of the original Gonzo visionaries who worked alongside Hunter S. Thompson. Early on, Steadman talks about his humor needing to have a "slightly maniacal" edge. For No Good Reason has no such thing; it’s gently informative and amusing the whole way through.

Draft Day **½ Directed by Ivan Reitman. Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner. On the day of the NFL player draft, Cleveland general manager Sonny Weaver trades up to get the first pick. While his decision may save football in his city, it just might cost him his girlfriend and his team. These interesting performers can’t save a dull script. To work, Draft Day needs the kind of witty dialogue and snappy energy that Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin brought to Moneyball but the screenwriters mistake constant activity for actual screenwriting.

Citizen Koch **½ Directed by Carl Deal, Tia Lessin. A documentary that follows the money behind the rise of the Tea Party. For those who don’t know how flawed and manipulated the act of casting a ballot has become, Citizen Koch is a decent enough primer, but for everyone else long past the tipping point, this is just more evidence for a problem that currently has no solution.

Cabin Feature: Patient Zero * Directed by Kaare Andrews. A group of friends planned the perfect vacation in the Caribbean, but when they head ashore to explore a remote island, they unleash a deadly virus. Less methodical and witty than its predecessors, Patient Zero often turns its infected characters into mindless, lurching zombies.

Moms’ Night Out * Directed by Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin. Sarah Drew, Sean Astin, Patricia Heaton, Trace Adkins. Yearning for an evening of dinner and conversation that does not involve their children, Allyson (Drew) and her friends plan a night on the town. To be able to do this, however, their husbands need to watch the kids for a few hours. You have to wonder why Allyson doesn’t just hire a nanny, find a job and get out of the house. Ah, but this is a Christian movie, and once it stops pelting an audience with comic incident, it begins preaching.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My Preseason Top 25 College Football Teams

1.  Florida State
2.  Alabama
3.  Oregon
4.  Stanford
5.  South Carolina
6.  Auburn
7.  Michigan State
8.  Oklahoma
9.  Baylor
10. UCLA
11. Ohio State
12. Clemson
13. LSU
14. Southern California
15. Missouri
16. Wisconsin
17. Oklahoma State
18. Georgia
19. Arizona State
20. Washington
21. Texas A&M
22. Louisville
23. Kansas State
24. Mississippi
25. Notre Dame

Richard Attenborough (Aug. 29, 1923-Aug. 24, 2014)



My most memorable Richard Attenborough moment came not from Gandi or The Great Escape or even Jurassic Park. It occurred on a drizzly afternoon in New York City. I had left work at the World Journal Tribune and was racing across Times Square. Because it was drizzling I decided to seek shelter in a place that always beckoned me -- a movie theater. I don't think I even noticed precisely what film was playing.

The movie I saw that afternoon was called Oh What a Lovely War, the first film Attenborough directed. I sat in the theater stunned at the film's audacity and was absolutely mesmerized by the helicopter shot Attenborough used to end the film. After it was all over, I just sat in my seat, completely overwhelmed. Not so the rest of the audience, however. In something I had never seen before (or since), the audience rose in unison and applauded the now blank screen for more than 10 minutes. The standing ovation was well deserved.

Attenborough, who died Sunday after a long illness which caused him to move into a nursing home in March 2013, went on, of course to direct other films: Young Winston (1972) A Bridge Too Far (1977), and, of course, Gandhi (1982) a project he started in 1964 and for which he won an Oscar. I didn't care for most the films he directed after 1982: A Chorus Line (1985 [although I loved the original Broadway musical]), the preachy Cry Freedom, and Chaplin (1992). Then he came back superbly with Shadowlands (1993).

My favorite moment from Attenborough the actor came with one of my all-time favorite, little-seen (at least by today's audiences) films, 1964's Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Kim Stanley had the more scene-chewing role as the unstable medium who convinces her brow-beaten husband (Attenborough) to kidnap a child so that she can convince the world that she used her psychic abilities to solve the crime. Watch this scene in which Stanley tells Attenborough it's time to their make move. Every note he plays here is exactly the right one.

One of my favorite little known facts about Attenborough was that he was a huge football fan and his favorite team was Chelsea. He was a director of the club from 1962 until 1982 and between 1993 and 2008 he was Chelsea's Life Vice President, an honorary position. On Nov. 30, 2008 Chelsea named Attenborough the team's Life President. One of his greatest personal disappointments was that he never could get the funding to make the movie he so desperately wanted to make, a film based on the life of Thomas Paine, whom Attenborough called "one of the finest men that ever lived."

Attenborough's life had its share of tragedy -- on Dec. 26, 2004, his oldest daughter, her mother-in-law and his 15-year-old granddaughter were killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Thailand that day.

But I'll always remember Attenborough for that closing scene in Oh What a Lovely War and his acting in Séance on a Wet Afternoon, and that's more than enough.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


The Double ***½ Directed by Richard Ayoade. Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska. A clerk (Eisenberg) in a government agency finds his unenviable life takes a turn for the horrific with the arrival of a new co-worker who is both his exact physical double and his opposite — confident, charismatic and seductive with women. Judicious editing helps to maintain the illusion of two actors, though the quick-speaking Wasikowska, as the twins’ flighty, mercurial object of desire, in some ways has the subtlest task — and often steals scenes from her co-star(s).

Belle *** Directed by Amma Asante. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson,Penelope Wilton, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson. The mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral is raised by her aristocratic great-uncle in 18th century England. It feels a little like a lesson you’re supposed to learn before you can enjoy anything truly satisfying.

Young & Beautiful *** Directed by François Ozob. Marine Vacth, Geraldine Pailhas, Frederic Pierrot, Charlotte Rampling, Johan Leysen. After losing her virginity, Isabelle (Vacth) takes up a secret life as a call girl, meeting her clients for hotel-room trysts. Throughout, she remains curiously aloof, showing little interest in the encounters themselves or the money she makes. Never amounts to anything more than its title’s shallow descriptors.

Trust Me **½ Directed by Clark Gregg. Clark Gregg, Felicity Huffman, Allison Janney, William H. Macy, Amanda Peet, Sam Rockwell, Molly Shannon, Saxon Sharbino, Paul Sparks. In an attempt to sign a Hollywood starlet, struggling talent agent and former child star Howard Holloway (Gregg) must contend with her volatile father, a scheming long-time rival, and a producer and casting director who despise him. Mixing comedy, drama, satire and noir, the Marvel actor’s second outing behind the camera plays for the same kind of uncomfortable laughs that his 2008 dramedy Choke did, but this one gazes so deeply into Hollywood’s navel that, with the affable Gregg in practically every scene, it ultimately can’t escape the whiff of a vanity project.

Blended Directed by Frank Corachi. Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore. After a bad blind date, a man and woman find themselves stuck together at a resort for families, where their attraction grows as their respective kids benefit from the burgeoning relationship. It’s a good family movie the way Hooters is a good family restaurant.

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return * Directed by Will Finn, Daniel St. Pierre. Voices of Lea Michele, Dan Akroyd, Kelsey Grammer, James Belushi, Megan Hilty, Hugh Dancer, Oliver Platt, Patrick Stewart. Dorothy (Michele) wakes up in post-tornado Kansas, only to be whisked back to Oz to try to save her old friends the Scarecrow (Aykroyd) , the Lion (Belushi), the Tin Man (Grammer) and Glinda (Bernadette Peters) from a devious new villain, the Jester (Martin Short). This is one of those movies that parents will have to ask themselves if they love their child enough to watch it with them. At least The Nut Job is off the hook as the worst indie-made animated feature of the year.

Monday, August 18, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


Manakamana ****½ Directed by Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez. A documentary about a group of pilgrims who travel to Nepal to worship at the legendary Manakamana temple. A haunting experience, one that requires patience (and then some) but that offers spiritual, philosophical, and aesthetic rewards beyond the immediate power of words to describe.

The Empty Hours **** Directed by Aarón Fernández Lesur. On the desolated coast of Veracruz, 17 year-old Sebastián (Kristyan Ferrer) takes over running his uncle’s small and cozy rent-by-the hour motel. There he meets Miranda (Adriana Paz), a regular customer who comes to the motel to meet a lover who always keeps her waiting. Full of long takes and matter-of-fact performances, melancholy low-contrast cinematography and desolate vistas suffused with acute loneliness, The Empty Hours captures the feeling of idling away the time, waiting for something to arrive.

Only Lovers Left Alive **** Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Depressed over the state of the human world, underground musician Adam (Tom Hiddleston) — a vampire — hooks up again with Eve (Tilda Swinton), his mysterious lover of many centuries. Jarmusch has made a vampire movie, but, as you might expect, not just any old vampire movie. Twilight fans will not be amused, but Jarmusch’s usual coterie of art-film followers will likely find the movie his best in years. With Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt.

The Dance of Reality ***½ Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Chilean filmmaker Jodorowsky weaves the story of his early years with mythical themes, recounting his unhappy childhood and how he was molded by a tyrannical communist father and free-spirited mother amid a landscape of political turmoil. This film, which deserves a place alongside Amarcord as a fantastical take on coming of age, is the work of a wise and experienced old soul with the heart and curiosity of a young man in love with life.

Go For Sisters *** Directed by John Sayles. Just out of prison, Fontayne (Yolanda Ross) is enlisted by Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), her estranged old friend and current parole officer, along with a disgraced cop (Edward James Olmos) to search for Bernice’s son, who went missing on the Mexican border. Like too many of Sayles’ films, this one seems bound to slip through the cracks, not quite memorable enough to make a lasting impression.

Fading Gigolo *** Directed by John Turturro. Middle-aged Fioravante (Turturro) and Murray (Woody Allen) are an unlikely gigolo and pimp in this farce about two cash-strapped friends who turn to the sex trade to make ends meet. A low-energy drama, but the kind that has a way of holding your attention — and keeping you smiling — for the entire time you’re watching it, lifting your mood in the process. With Vanessa Paradis, Liev Schreiber, Sharon Stone, Sofia Vergara.

The Amazing Spiderman 2 **½ Directed by Marc Webb. Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) squares off against the Rhino (Paul Giamatti) and the powerful Electro (Jamie Foxx) while struggling to keep his promise to leave Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) out of his dangerous life. There are too many explosions, too many blaring sonic effects, too many break-ups-and-make-ups, too many villains. And not enough heart.

The Sacrament **½ Directed by Ti West. Another one of those "found footage" films that recounts the story of an exiled Christian cult and the grisly events that transpire after three journalists — one looking for his missing sister — arrive at the commune. Because the film is meant to resemble documentary footage, West is forced to effectively "play dumb," disguising his craftsmanship behind a lot of intentionally cruddy handheld camerawork. Still, that’d be less of a problem if the material he was gracelessly filming weren’t such run-of-the-mill claptrap.

The Quiet Ones ** Directed by John Pogue. Charismatic Professor Coupland (Jared Harris) and a few of his brightest students set out to summon a poltergeist. There are a couple of decent jumps and a few giggles, but nothing armrest-clenchingly scary about this movie.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Plastic Bag Ban? What Plastic Bag Ban?



Born-again environmentalist D-Wayne Carriedaway, that District 4 Dallas city councilman who desperately wants to become mayor and hopes to achieve his goal through sheer bombast, came up with this idea that has become very popular among green cities: banning the use of plastic shopping bags.

Dallas wants you to believe it’s a "green city" and, in a moment of kindness, I’m willing to admit the city is lima bean green, at best. I also firmly believe a majority of Dallas citizens, when it is made clear to them all the harmful environmental effects as well as the detrimental financial effects resulting from the use of plastic bags, would support an all-out ban of plastic bags by a significant majority. Bans like those in already in effect in Austin; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Wasington, D.C.; Portland, Ore., and others. However, those who donate big bucks to the election coffers of those running for the Dallas City Council oppose an all-out ban by an even more significant majority. So, of course, Carriedaway’s Crusade had as much a chance of success as his hopes for higher office.

What he wound up settling for was an ordinance that allows store customers to continue to take their goods home in plastic bags, but they must pay 25 cents for each bag they use. (I still haven’t heard how this is going to be enforced at the self-checkout lanes, but that’s another story.) I guess Carriedaway figured (1) merchants would get weary of maintaining a separate product category for plastic bags, complete with their own scannable bar codes and/or (2) customers would quickly tire of shelling out 25 cents for a plastic bag and start using reusable shopping bags. Either one of those options would mean the end of plastic bags as we know them in Dallas. I don’t think either of those possible outcomes is realistic. Why?

Last night, in CFO Jeanne Chipperfield’s slide presentation during council member Adam Medrano’s budget town hall meeting, Ms. Chipperfield displayed a slide titled "Clean, Healthy Environment." The second bullet on that slide was: "Initiate enforcement of City’s new single-use bag ordinance." During the Q&A session following her presentation, one audience member asked Ms. Chipperfield what that bullet meant. Ms. Chipperfield replied "So (that’s the word she uses to begin the answer to every question directed her way) then went on to explain, from the city’s point of view, the purpose of the audience without ever once saying the "b" word, which led me to believe that word has been (pardon me for this) banned for use by city officials. She told the audience that the city nets 5 cents for every bag sold, money she suggested, would be used to pay for enforcing the ordinance. So, great news, folks, this ordinance pays for itself.

But the fact that the ordinance pays for itself was not what I was thinking when Ms. Chipperfield forecast the city would collect some $2 million in the 10 months of the fiscal year during which the ordinance will be law. What I was thinking was that amounts to 40 million new plastic bags introduced to the Dallas environment, 40 million additional plastic bags that will clog our water systems, strangle endangered wildlife and bringing a quicker demise to our landfill.

And Dallas has the gall to want to call itself a "green city."

Dallas Budget Town Hall Toodle-Loo: “They’re Still Out There”

Interior of Frontiers of Flight Museum: As empty as it was when I walked inside this evening

It’s that time of year again: That time when the serious, award-contending movies start being released, when students prepare for the start of another school year, when the minds of young men turn to football and the minds of older, out-of-shape, guys turn to fantasy football. Yep, it’s that time again: That time when those elected to the Dallas City Council venture out to greet a microscopic representation of their constituency during that annual rite of late summer known as the Budget Town Hall Meeting. That’s when the council member hosts a representative from the City Manager’s office who narrates a slide show (you can get your own copy of it before the meeting begins so you can follow along) outlining, in the sketchiest of terms, the budget the city manager has proposed the City Council adopt. Then, after that, advocates of arts groups and the libraries get up and complain how they were shortchanged, other citizens will ask questions that have absolutely nothing to do with the budget, and then everyone disperses until the same time next year.

City Manager A.C. Gonzalez
At least that’s how it usually goes. This year, however, I thought things might be different, In the first proposed budget A.C. Gonzalez has submitted since being named city manager, he made some recommendations his predecessor never dared to suggest, namely slashing funds from the police department and turning them over to (What’s this?) arts groups and the city’s libraries!!!

I ventured out this evening to my first budget town hall meeting of the current season, this one hosted by District 2's Adam Medrano at the Frontiers of Flight Museum.

First things first: The Frontiers of Flight Museum is, if not the worst place ever to hold such a meeting, a location that ranks right up there. The museum is rather large and spacious — at least it seems that way when you walk inside at dusk and there’s not another soul to be seen in the entire joint. But of course, there must be a sign somewhere to direct constituents to where the meeting is being held. Surely. Somewhere. A sign. Maybe just a paper arrow. Something? Nothing. I spent a lot of time walking around that empty place before I finally ventured upstairs to a landing that led nowhere. Took the stairs back down and this time I took an elevator up to an entirely different level than the stairs took me to. Still no one around. Then I spotted a gentleman in a semi-dark blue suit rushing down the hall pointing his finger in the direction from which he had come. I thought, "My heavens. Is he running to summon aid for a fallen companion?" So I picked up my pace in the direction from which he came and, waddya know, found myself at the site of Medrano’s town hall meeting.

Dallas CFO Jeanne Chipperfield
By the time I walk in, the somewhat less-than-dynamic chief financial officer for the city, Jeanne Chipperfield, is on about Slide 16 of her 36-slide narration giving me the impression that she would rather be anywhere else than where she is. But I’m going to give her some leeway here. Being the chief financial officer, she has been in closer contact with this budget than anyone else in the city and the document is, in fact, a comparatively boring budget. So I guess Ms. Chipperfield had every right to act as though she was suffering through a blind date with a turnip. One other thing: Has anyone else noticed she begins the answer to every question with the word "So."

But Ms. Chipperfield had one weapon at her disposal that no one else in the room had — a microphone. You could hear her. After she finished her presentation and it came time for the questions from the microscopic representation of you-know-who, all sound disappeared. Well, not all sound — the hum of the air conditioning system was quite audible. But the voices of humans? I might as well have been in a sound proof booth. That second floor auditorium at the Frontiers of Flight Museum has the worst acoustics of any public meeting room I have ventured into in my considerably long life.

Now what I expected to be a loud and boisterous crowd defending our men in blue didn’t materialize. In fact, to my great surprise, no one expressed any concern at all for the recommendation that the police department’s budget be cut by $2 million. But I guess when you have a budget of $438.1 million (38 percent of General Fund expenses), what’s a measly $2 million? Right? Not only that, it would be impossible for anyone to be loud and boisterous in the Frontiers of Flight Museum .auditorium.

But I did, however, pick up some morsels. Three people spoke out in favor of more money going to animal control. Not for the spade/neutering or adoption programs that need more money, but for capturing the millions of wild dogs apparently running amok around Love Field. To hear some of these people (or at least what I thought I head) there’s some kind of conspiracy afoot that involves all loose dogs in the city and surrounding areas being driven to and them dumped in District 2. Imagine that!

But the real surprise came when this lone advocate for the library stood up in effort to prove the gospel of Gordon Gekko is as alive today as it was in the Reagan era: "Thanks for the chump change," she seemed to be saying, "but we want more, more, more, MORE!!!!" Never mind that the Gonzalez proposed budget pays for the phase-in of 12 branch libraries and the Central Library being open longer every day, seven days a week. It also pays for the 15 remaining branches to be open six additional hours each week beginning next year. "We want more, more, more, MORE!!!!" Then someone from the cultural arts got up and made the same complaint about how their increases weren’t nearly enough. Now I will admit, most of the increases here are going to pay for the utility bills at the Fair Park Music Hall and the Sammons Center, but I’ve always maintained government shouldn’t be that heavily involved in subsidizing arts groups to begin with — that should come from private donations and these groups should be getting off their duffs and soliciting those donations.

Council member Adam Medrano
But the fact that the library and arts groups are still screaming for more, more, more, wasn’t the ultimate shock of the evening. That came when I spoke to Councilman Medrano after the meeting and discovered he stands right alongside them. I asked him directly what he thought about the budget and he said "It doesn’t do enough directly for the citizens." When I asked him to be more specific he told me directly and without hesitation "I intend to seek more money for the libraries and the arts." Then I asked him where he plans to subtract funds to pay for the library and arts additions. He said "The City Manager’s Office and the City Attorney’s Office. I asked the city attorney at the beginning of this whole process if he needed any additional attorneys on his staff and he told me he didn’t. But this budget pays for the addition of five more attorneys."

So there you have it. Oh, yes, the vivacious Ms. Chipperfield also told the assemblage something I had not heard before, but may be common knowledge and that’s the fact that the city will submit a "close to $1 billion) bond package to the voters in November 2017. So get ready for that.

 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

“It depends on who’s in the saddle”


 
This is not only my favorite scene from the movie The Big Sleep, but simply one of my favorite scenes from any movie. The double entendres flow faster than the drinks from the bar. Perhaps it’s because the source material was a novel by the great Raymond Chandler or maybe because the film’s screenplay was written by no less than William Faulkner. But I can’t think of anyone who could have played it better than Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.
Bacall was 20-years-old when the scene was filmed, Bogart 45. And their chemistry was obvious. They began an affair when she, at the age of 17, made her first film with Bogie To Have and Have Not; were married right around the time of the release of The Big Sleep; and remained married until Bogie’s death from cancer in 1957.

I’m not sure why Bacall, who died today from a stroke at the age of 89, never received the credit due her as an actress. Perhaps it was because he made it seem so natural. "Was she acting or just being Lauren Bacall?" She received only one Oscar nomination, for supporting actress in the now mostly forgotten The Mirror Has Two Faces. Many observers, myself included, considered her a cinch to win the Oscar that year, not only because her performance warranted it, because it could have also been considered a lifetime achievement award. However, she was upset by Juliet Binoche (The English Patient). In my opinion, she could have also been nominated for her performance in The Shootist.

She did receive accolades from her peers, however. So the story goes, Bette Davis, who played Margo Channing memorably in the film All About Eve, went to see Bacall in the same role in the Broadway version of the film, Applause, and told Bacall "You know you’re the only one who can play this role."

Her acting abilities did earn her a pair of Tony Awards, for the aforementioned Applause (1970) and Woman of the Year (1981).

Not only that, she inspired millions of men to whistle.

Robin Williams



I found myself spending a week in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, not an uncommon occurrence for me at the time, and as a chronicler of all things rock ‘n’ roll I usually spent my evenings there on or close to Sunset Blvd., where I would invariably run into this guy known as the mayor of that boulevard. He would take me to some club and introduce me to a band no one had ever heard of, but, always, within a few months, would have a record at the top of the charts.

On one particular evening, however, I didn’t want rock ‘n’ roll, so I ventured into the Improv on Sunset. Not that I expected to see anything special – it was open mike night for amateurs – but it was a place where I knew I could relax, have a drink or two, and be friendly to my expense account (there was no cover charge on open mike night for amateurs).

None of the amateurs I saw that night struck me as overwhelmingly special in any way, but, suddenly, during one of the many breaks between comics, a man burst through the front door, walked directly up to the stage, grabbed the microphone and took over. It was Robin Williams. He was opening the following week in Las Vegas and he decided to test his act for the first time on a live audience that night at the Improv.

I never watched Happy Days, so I never saw Williams’ introduction to the American public. And, for some reason, I could never become a fan of Mork & Mindy. It seemed "too cute" for my tastes. But I don’t know if I had ever laughed as hard as I did watching that maniac do his stuff that night at the Improv, especially when he went into his Elmer Fudd sings Bruce Springsteen bit. Absolutely inspired lunacy. I love comedy that crosses the line into anarchy and I had not seen comedic anarchy like that since the Marx Brothers.

I must also admit that I wasn’t as enthused with many of William’s early motion picture performances as a lot of others. When he went into his John Wayne shtick in Dead Poets Society I thought to myself "I saw him do that exact same bit that night at the Improv." Same thing with Good Morning, Vietnam. I was in Vietnam when Adrian Cronauer was broadcasting to the troops there and, trust me, Adrian was nothing like the way Williams portrayed him in the film. Williams the actor was doing Williams the comic, not Cronauer, in that film. But Williams did grow on me as an actor, especially in some of the thrillers in which he appeared during the early years of this century – films like Insomnia and, in what I regard as his best performance,  One Hour Photo.

But, to me, the brilliance of Robin Williams came across live on stage, from those magical nights like that memorable one at the Improv, to his appearances on Johnny Carson’s show and, most of all, in the performance he gave at a now defunct concert hall in far East Dallas, a joint whose name escapes me at the moment. Many great comics are often imitated by those that follow in their wake. But Williams, who died yesterday, apparently a victim of suicide, was one of a kind. He defined "unique." He patterned himself after no one else, and no one since has come close to duplicating his style – I don’t think any aspiring comic has even had the nerve to try.

And I guess that’s as good a definition of "greatness" as you can find.

Monday, August 11, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases



Locke **** Directed by Steven Knight. Over the space of 90 minutes, Ivan Locke’s (Tom Hardy) life spins out of control via a series of phone calls made while he drives down the highway to London. A masterclass in how the most local, most hemmed-in stories can reverberate with the power of big, universal themes. If you are asking a viewer to listen to one man talking for an hour and a half, you had better make sure he is worth listening to, and minute-by-minute, Hardy has you spellbound.

Muppets Most Wanted *** Directed by James Bobin. In the middle of their global tour, the Muppets inadvertently get mixed up in a perilous drama involving a gang of international jewel thieves. Story aside, this is about the gags, songs and then more gags. On the upside, the jokes are great: the usual jolly mix of character humour, situation comedy, farce, satire and wordplay. With Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey.

Breathe In *** Directed by Drake Doremus. Music teacher Keith (Guy Pearce) has his mind focused on the past when he and his wife (Amy Ryan) agree to welcome a foreign exchange student (Felicity Jones) into their household. For all the obviousness on the surface, and despite some forced last-act havoc, Breathe In works like a piece of chamber music. It goes up to the edge of emotion, circles it, then backs away. But the notes not hit seem as powerful as the ones that are.

Hateship Loveship *** Directed by Liza Johnson. A wild teenage girl (Hailee Steinfeld) orchestrates a romance between her nanny (Kristen Wiig) and her father (Guy Pearce), who is a recovering addict. Wiig is so enjoyable to watch that it rescues Johnson’s film. She’s the best reason to see it. With Nick Nolte.

The Railway Man *** Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Former British Army officer Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), who was tormented as a prisoner of war at a Japanese labor camp during World War II, discovers that the man responsible for much of his treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him. It’s heartening to have a tony war film about Post Traumatic Stress Disease and forgiveness; it would be grander still to have one that dedicated itself more fully to examining the courage it would take to offer that forgiveness, rather than dash its energies upon the dreary cowardice of the crime itself. With Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard.

Proxy *** Directed by Zack Parker. A support group offers much-needed comfort and friendship for a shattered woman (Alexia Rasmussen) who was assaulted late in her pregnancy. Employing scaled-down sets and low-budget audacity, Parker, an intelligent and boundary-testing filmmaker, proves less concerned with logic than with how far he can push his characters.

Filth *** Directed by Jon S. Baird. A corrupt cop (James McAvoy) manipulates and hallucinates his way through a bid to secure a promotion and win back his wife and daughter. Taking the bad-cop genre to the extreme, Filth lives up to its title and then some, but a no-holds performance by McAvoy is reason enough to watch.

Frankie & Alice **½ Directed by Geoffrey Sax. A woman (Halle Berry) battles to vanquish the racist alter ego that’s taken root inside her unsettled consciousness. Berry does a decent job with the role, and the film treats its subject matter respectfully, but the overall package doesn’t rise above ordinariness. With Stellan Skarsgard, Phylicia Rashad.

Rage Directed by Paco Cabezas. When the daughter of a reformed criminal (Nicolas Cage) is kidnapped, he rounds up his old crew and seeks his own brand of justice. Proficiently made but fatally unpersuasive in its portrayal of internecine gang warfare, this thuggish melodrama piles on the foreign accents and paint-by-numbers brutality, all served up with a grim, operatic self-seriousness that gives Cage’s antihero little room to maneuver.

A Haunted House 2 * Directed by Michael Tiddes. Malcolm Marlon Wayans) tries to move on after his girlfriend’s untimely tragic death, but he has reason to believe she is back when strange things start happening in his new home. If this is a step up from the previous go-round, it’s either because a slightly more talented crew of comic actors are being asked to waste their time or because the year has offered a better crop of horror films to be lazily parodied.

Friday, August 8, 2014

My favorite teacher

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman
Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman had a profound influence on my life and values. I was more than just his student, I felt like I was his disciple. As he talks about in this interview, he left Dallas and Temple Emanu-El more than 20 years ago, but I still miss him, his lectures, his sermons, his teachings and his friendship. You can get a small inkling of what he stands for in this interview, but you will not be able to sense the power, the energy and the dynamic qualities that he possesses here. For that, I guess, you'll just have to schlep on out to the Hamptons. That being said, there are far worse places to be.

Monday, August 4, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


12 O’Clock Boys ***½ Directed by Lofty Nathan. Pug , a young boy growing up on a combative West Baltimore block, finds solace in a group of illegal dirt bike riders. Packs more life into its 72 minutes than many longer documentaries do.

Oculus *** Directed by Mike Flanagan. A woman (Karen Gillan) tries to exonerate her brother (Brendon Thwaites), who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon. Earns its frights the old fashioned way — with convincingly traumatized characters, with smoke and with mirrors.

Ping Pong Summer **½ Directed by Michael Tully. A family vacation during the summer of 1985 changes everything for a teenage boy (Marcello Conte) obsessed with ping pong. Writer-director Tully simultaneously pays tribute to his own 1980s childhood and the cliched movies he grew up watching, and the result is one of the most honestly dishonest movies you’ll ever watch. With Judah Friedlander, Amy Sedaris, Leah Thompson, John Hannah, Susan Sarandon.

Divergent **½ Directed by Neil Burger. Born into a civilization in the distant future, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) is a teenager who learns that her unique cognitive skills make her useful to the authorities. Over time she discovers that she’s a Divergent, and thus slated for elimination by the government. This latest outcast-teen-battles-The-System thriller, is similar enough to The Hunger Games that hardcore Katniss fans may dismiss it. But it’s a more streamlined film, with a love story with genuine heat and deaths with genuine pathos.

Need for Speed ** Directed by Scott Waugh. Fresh from prison, a street racer (Aaron Paul) who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind. His ex-partner, learning of the plan, places a massive bounty on his head as the race begins. If you like watching people drive really nice cars really fast, this movie scratches that particular itch. But expect nothing more, because everything else about it is just running on empty.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The 25 Best Films of 2014 (through July)

1.  Boyhood
2.  Ida
3.  The Grand Budapest Hotel
4.  We Are the Best!
5.  Life Itself
6.  Ernest & Celestine
7.  Calvary
8.  Snowpiercer
9.  Gloria
10. The LEGO Movie
11. Stranger By the Lake
12. Locke
13. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
14. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
15. Jodorowsky's Dune
16. Under the Skin
17. Guardians of the Galaxy
18. How to Train Your Dragon 2
19. Child's Pose
20. Blue Ruin
21. Only Lovers Left Alive
22. The Immigrant
23. The Lunchbox
24. The Dance of Reality
25. Obvious Child

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

This Week’s DVD Releases


It Felt Like Love **** Directed by Eliza Hittman. Determined to explore her budding sexuality, 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti) develops romantic delusions about an older guy that soon turn to obsession. Hittman’s film captures the exclusive properties of sex with a degree of intimacy and empathy that, at times, feels authentically revelatory.

Finding Vivian Maier ***½ Directed by John Maloof, Charlie Siskel. A documentary on the late Maier, a nanny whose previously unknown cache of 100,000 photographs earned her a posthumous reputation as one the most accomplished street photographers. This movie might better have been titled "Constructing Vivian Maier" — not because the filmmakers came up empty-handed, but because what they found out sheds too neat and tidy a light on her unsparing, yet warmly sympathetic portraits of the denizens of Chicago’s seamy underside.

Noah ***½ Directed by Darren Aranofsky. This adaptation of the story of Noah (Russell Crowe) depicts the visions that led him to voice dire prophesies of apocalypse and to build an ark to survive. Aronofsky’s earnest, uneven, intermittently powerful film, is both a psychological case study and a parable of hubris and humility. At its best, its shares some its namesake’s ferocious conviction, and not a little of his madness. With Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins.

On My Way *** Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot. Prompted by a post-midlife crisis, Bettie (Catherine Deneuve) goes out for cigarettes and decides to keep on driving, abandoning the restaurant she owns. Family members fight and reconcile over delicious-looking regional cuisine, new romantic possibilities present themselves, and Deneuve swans through all the heartstring-plucking silliness like the ethereal superstar she is. There are worse things in life.

Cuban Fury **½ Directed by James Griffiths. Two decades after retiring his dancing shoes, former almost-champion salsa expert Bruce Garrett (Nick Frost) tries to regain his form. Frost is a likable lead and an easy rooting interest. But his affability isn’t enough to give this silly-sweet feature the edge and dimension that would make it a memorable contribution to the subgenre epitomized by The Full Monty — comedies in which middle-aged, unassuming Brits discover their inner showman. With Rashida Jones, Chris O’Dowd, Ian McShane.

Half a Yellow Sun **½ Directed by Biyi Bandele. Twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) each find unexpected romance in the late 1960s against the backdrop of Nigeria’s civil war. One of those movies in which a pesky event of great historical import keeps getting in the way of a soap-opera romance. With Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Five Dances **½ Directed by Alan Brown. The coming of age tale of an extraordinarily gifted young dancer (Ryan Steele) recently arrived in New York City. The gorgeous physicality is more impressive than the sketchy storyline of this dance-centric drama.

The Protector 2 ** Directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Martial arts expert Kham (Tony Jaa) wages new battles with animal poachers who work for an organization planning to use his beloved elephant Khon as part of a plot to carry out a coup d’état. In brief spurts, the film is funny, but taken as a whole, it feels like a waste of talent. Cheesiness should not be the most memorable thing about a Tony Jaa movie.

Cold Turkey ** Directed by Will Slocombe. Thanksgiving for the eccentric Turner clan turns into a train wreck when "insane" daughter Nina (Alicia Witt) comes homes for the first time in 15 years. The film is too busy and offers no fresh insight on the inner hysteria of seemingly upright WASPs. The actors work hard, but their roles are mostly one-note. It’s Witt who generates the laughs and the pathos. With Peter Bogdanovich, Ashton Holmes, Sonya Walger, Wilson Bethel, Cheryl Hines.

The Other Woman ** Directed by Nick Cassavetes. When she finds out that her boyfriend is married and that she’s his mistress, a woman teams up with the jerk’s wife to get revenge. Ignores dozens of potentially edgy possibilities to tell the most banal story imaginable — and to do it badly. With Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton.

Lullaby Directed by Andrew Levitas. A man (Garrett Hedlund) who’s estranged from his family receives word that his father has chosen to take himself off life support within 48 hours. This feature debut deals mainly in clichés, never transforming the tough question at its center into compelling cinema. With Richard Jenkins, Jessica Brown Findlay, Anne Archer, Jennifer Hudson, Jessica Barden, Terrence Howard, Amy Adams.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Baseball’s Hall of Fame is a Joke


A number of so-called deserving former players, managers, executives, etc., were inducted today into Major League Baseball’s so-called Hall of Fame. Pardon me if I don’t get all excited or take the news too seriously. My favorite sportswriter of all time was a gentleman by the name of Red Smith and he once wrote that the only solution for the sorry state of the Hall was to blow it up and start all over again. I couldn’t agree more.

For one thing, the Hall’s standards are too low and voting for entrance is too prejudicial. Since 1939, the No. 1 way to gain entrance into the Hall was by a vote of Baseball Writers Association of America, a collection of mostly white, middle-aged men — the very last group you want handling a selection process like this. Back in the day when baseball writers actually were worth reading, the players were making far less money than they are today and the relationship between the two was really too cozy for the writers to be objective. Today, the writers have to grovel just to gain access to baseball’s hallowed stars, so the relationship between the two is antagonistic. Take the case of Boston’s Jim Rice. He had a well known disdain for sports writers which is the reason it took the writers 15 years to finally vote him into the hall. Today, the Hall adopted new rules which allow a player to remain on the ballot no longer than 10 years. Hmmm.

The other way to get in is through a vote of the Veterans Committee, which should be abolished immediately. Between 1945 and 1946, the committee ran rampant, voting all of their cronies into the hall. After that — nada. I guess they just think the modern player doesn’t hack it among the greats of the VC’s era. Ha!

But that’s not my main quarrel with the hall, not by a longshot. Among its members are, to quote Zev Chaftets’ book Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame," a convicted drug dealer, a reformed cokehead who narrowly beat a lifetime suspension from baseball, a celebrated sex addict, an Elders of Zion conspiracy nut, a pitcher who wrote a book about how he cheated his way into the hall, a well-known and highly arrested drunk driver and a couple of nasty beanball artists."

And those are all living members. Among those who are no longer with us are Ty Cobb, who may have actually been a murderer, and who we absolutely know to have been a raging sociopath and an avowed racist who was a card-carrying, torch-waving member of the Ku Klux Klan (as were fellow hall members Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby). The hall also contains a defendant in a paternity suit, many gamblers and too many drunks to count (legendary baseball executive Bill Veck claimed Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched better drunk than sober).

During today’s ceremonies, three —count ‘em, three —managers, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, were inducted into the hall. I’ll leave it to someone else to debate their worthiness for the honor— I have no qualms about it — but I will continue to argue the success of any baseball manager is directly linked to the quality of the players on that manager’s team. Casey Stengel is in MLB’s Hall of Fame. Why? I have no idea. The reason given was because of the success of the New York Yankee teams he managed between 1949 and 1960, during which time the Yanks won five consecutive World Series titles (1949-1953) and then after failing to the win the league title in 1954 and the series in 1955, won titles in 1956 and 1958. Sounds impressive. But not really. The Yankees of that era were loaded. They had players on the bench that could start and star for any other club in the major leagues. My mother could have managed that team to the same success Stengel enjoyed. After Stengel’s Yanks lost the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, he was fired and subsequently hired by the New York Mets. He managed the Mets four years and in all four of those years the Mets finished 10th in the 10-team National League. If Stengel was such a Hall of Fame-worthy genius, don’t you think one of those four Mets teams could have finished at least ninth?

And although the success of any baseball team (thus manager) is directly linked to the quality of the players on that team, there are only four — four! — general managers — the executives responsible for assembling major league teams — in the hall: Ed Barrow, Branch Rickey, George Weiss and Larry McPhail. That’s blasphemous.

But what’s worse is the baseball writers holier-than-thou, disgracingly sanctimonious decision to exclude Roger Clements and Barry Bonds from the hall. How can they justify including possible murderers, racists, sex addicts, cokeheads, drunk drivers and other nefarious types in the hall, but exclude two individuals, who were acquitted by juries of their peers in courts of law of taking performance enhancing drugs?

Pete Rose deserves a spot in the hall as well. And when he’s inducted, his plaque should note quite emphatically he was banned from baseball for life for betting on games. Yes, he did that. He even admits it now. But that does not take away from what he accomplished on the baseball diamond. He’s the all-time hits leader, for goodness sakes. I simply can’t see how the hall can exclude the all-time hits leader, the all time homers leader and a seven-time Cy Young award winner from the hall, when all the other aforementioned outlaws are allowed in.

As long as this type of bigoted attitude and these types of wrong-headed decisions exist, all I can say about Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame is "pass the dynamite."