Monday, May 25, 2015

This Week's DVD Releases

Ballet 422 *** Directed by Jody Lee Lipes. A documentary chronicling the intense artistic effort behind the 422nd new work staged by the New York City Ballet. A delightfully immersive look at how a ballet is created, Lipes’ documentary is a stark contrast to the psycho theatrics of something like Black Swan.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles *** Directed by Chuck Workman. Cinema icon Welles’ talent and checkered career are memorialized in this documentary featuring clips from nearly all of his directorial efforts and interviews with filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and George Lucas. Sturdy and rudimentary, Magician may be Welles 101, but it’s dotted liberally with TV and radio clips of the famously loquacious auteur talking, talking, and doing more talking — and how could anybody with ears and a brain resist that buttery voice, spinning out clause-laden sentences that take more twists and turns than the streets of Venice but always end, somehow, in a place that’s ravishingly articulate?

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus ** Directed by Spike Lee. While researching the history of a little-known empire, anthropologist Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams) comes across an ancient dagger that is shortly used to murder him. When he wakes up unharmed, Greene discovers that he’s developed an acute appetite for human blood. While this return to indie roots frees up Lee’s often gifted image making, his usual pace issues and penchant for jagged flourish over sustained feeling keep it from achieving a rich, strange, sexy and sad whole.

Cut Bank Directed by Matt Shakman. Starring Liam Hemsworth, Teresa Palmer, Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Dern, Michael Stuhlbarg, Oliver Platt, John Malkovich, A young man’s life is unraveled after witnessing a murder that he filmed in his rural town of Cut Bank. Clever enough to provoke a few abrupt laughs along the way, this big screen debut for two television stalwarts, Shakman (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and writer Robert Patino (Sons of Anarchy, Prime Suspect), is sabotaged by some frightfully on-the-nose expository dialogue and an adamantly prosaic visual style.

Seventh Son * Directed by Sergei Bodrov. In the 18th century, apprentice exorcist Tom Ward (Ben Barnes) is the lynchpin in a battle between good and evil when imprisoned witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) escapes. Not only offers no new spin on its bland, by-the-numbers story, it also fails to deliver any generic pleasures; I’m not sure this movie could even keep a young child engaged.

See You In Valhalla * Directed by Jarret Tarnol. Starring Sarah Hyland, Steve Howey, Odeya Rush, Bret Harrison, Emma Bell, Jake McDorman, Beau Mirchoff, Michael Weston, Conor O’Farrell. A young woman returns home to reunite with her estranged family after the bizarre death of her brother. Featuring stereotypical characterizations and painfully awkward dialogue, the film treats its dramatic themes with a wince-inducing shallowness. Virtually nothing in the drawn-out proceedings works on any level, and the characters are so inherently unlikeable that being in their company is as painful for viewers as it is for them.

Nightlight * Directed by Scott Beck, Bryan Woods. Making a night journey into Covington Forest — a place long associated with teen suicides — five friends plan to play flashlight games. It’s all very familiar in that Blair Witch kind of way, with neither the characters nor situations proving remotely interesting.

The Loft * Directed by Erik Van Looy. Five married co-owners of an upscale loft enjoy their investment as a discreet hideaway for their adulterous pursuits. But when a murdered woman is discovered in the apartment, each suspects the others of committing the grisly killing. This silly chamber piece about sex and murder elicits only yawns, interrupted by the occasional unintentional giggle.

Monday, May 18, 2015

This wee's DVD releases

Leviathan **** Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. In a Russian coastal town, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is forced to fight the corrupt mayor when he is told that his house will be demolished. He recruits a lawyer friend to help, but the man's arrival brings further misfortune for Kolya and his family. If there was ever any doubt as to Zvyagintsev's position as one of world cinema's foremost auteurs, it's put to rest here. His filmmaking has always been superb, but he's never taken on the state of his nation in the way he does here. And that makes Leviathan not just masterful but also hugely important.

Girlhood ***½ Directed by Céline Sciamma. A girl with few real prospects joins a gang, reinventing herself and gaining a sense of self confidence in the process. A powerful and entertaining film about a gang of girls, and what friendship means, the protection it provides.

American Sniper *** Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle's pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can't leave behind. Cooper, to his credit, rarely flinches, never chest-thumps and never loses his cool, even when Kyle is starting to lose his. It’s a masterful interpretation of a man with a lot more on his mind and blood on his hands than he was ever inclined to let on. And it’s a performance worthy of Eastwood himself — 50 years ago.

The Blue Room *** Directed by Mathieu Amalric. In the intimate confines of a hotel room, married Julien Gahyde (Mathieu Amalric) and his paramour, Esther Despierre (Stéphanie Cléau), meet regularly for erotic encounters until he's arrested for an unstipulated crime connected to their intense affair. A deceptively low-key riff on a Hitchcock whodunit. It’s both sexy and inscrutable, a cold-blooded puzzler to the very end.

Last Hijack **½ Directed by Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting. A partially animated documentary that focuses on Mohamed Nura of Somalia, who — despite his family's opposition — has become an expert in piracy. The filmmakers have gotten extraordinary access to Mohamed and ravaged Somalia. But it's disappointing that they did not capture more scenes of Mohamed's wife and her family, who in the end are the ones who make the most momentous decision.

All the Wilderness ** Directed by Michael Johnson. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Virginia Madsen, Isabelle Fuhrman, Evan Ross, Danny DeVito. A restless teenager explores the wilderness of his city while struggling with the absence of his father. Writer-director Johnson covers a lot of familiarly morbid teen ground in All the Wilderness, a film with touches of "Ordinary People" and a hint of "Harold & Maude." But touches and a hint aren’t enough to lift this morose movie into anything any of us need to see or hear to deepen our understanding of teen depression, grief and love.

Cymbelline ** Directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Milla Jobovich, John Leguizamo, Dakota Johnson. Biker-gang leader Cymbeline and his second wife scheme to have her son wed Cymbeline's daughter to get her out of the picture. One of the most uncinematic pieces crafted by an otherwise fine stylist, Cymbeline befuddles with its ineffective blocking and lack of art direction.

Maya the Bee Movie ** Directed by Alexs Stadermann. Starring Jacki Weaver, Richard Roxburgh, Noah Taylor, Justine Clarke, Jodi Smit-McPhee. Banished from the hive by the queen's evil adviser after discovering her dastardly scheme to steal the royal jelly and frame the hornets, young Maya the bee must make her way alone across the perilous meadow to save the day. More harmless than entertaining, a limp exercise in cinematic baby-sitting for the 6-and-under set.

Before I Disappear ** Directed by Shawn Christensen. Starring Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Paul Wesley, Emmy Rossum, Ron Perlman. At the lowest point of his life, Richie gets a call from his estranged sister, asking him to look after his 11-year old niece for a few hours. There's a surface elegance that might play as depth in smaller doses, but at feature length, the stylistic flourishes seem to be covering for deficiencies rather than servicing the material.

ZombeaversDirected by Jordan Rubin. Enjoying a relaxed and romantic lakeside holiday, a gang of college students suddenly find themselves hunted by a pack of murderous un-dead beavers (I’m not making this stuff up). It’s not a total wash, and seen at night, under the right combination of low expectations and controlled substances, it may even seem better than it really is.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 * Directed by Steve Pink. When Lou (Rob Corddry) finds himself in trouble, Nick (Craig Robinson) and Jacob (Clark Duke) fire up the hot tub time machine in an attempt to get back to the past. But they inadvertently land in the future. It’s a comedy that’s so witless and unfunny and shoddily made it makes The Hangover 2 look like The Godfather 2.

Lovesick * Directed by Luke Matheny. Starring Matt LeBlanc, Ali Larter, Adam Rodriguez, Chevy Chase. A school principal is successful in life but for one glaring exception: Every time he begins a relationship, his excessive jealousy and paranoia ruin things. Both LeBlanc and Larter glide through the synthetic setup like pros, but they have no connection because their characters barely resemble human beings.

Strange Magic * Directed by Gary Rydstrom. Starring Alan Cumming, Evan Rachal Wood, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina, Peter Stormare. Goblins, elves, fairies and imps battle over a powerful potion. It’s like watching a cartoon version of American Idol on an endless karaoke loop.

Monday, May 11, 2015

This Week's DVD Releases

Still Alice *** Directed by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland. Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart. A linguistics professor and her family find their bonds tested when she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Moore makes the movie worthwhile, elevating it from disease-of-the-week fare to the role of a lifetime.

Beloved Sisters **½ Directed by Dominik Graf. In the late 18th century, sisters Charlotte (Henriette Confurius) and Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung) begin an unconventional romance with poet Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter), who cares deeply for them both. Might scratch your costume drama itch, but it’s not among the genre’s best.

Tip Top **½ Directed by Serge Bozon. Two lady detectives (Isabelle Huppert, Sandrine Marinelli) are sent to investigate a rash of crimes in a provincial town, much to the annoyance of the locals. Shot in precisely composed frames, with recurring visual motifs and an eye-pleasing color palette that accentuates blue hues, Tip Top is commendably ambitious in its Godardian attempts to deconstruct the police thriller format, but it’s only partially successful.

The Sleepwalker **½ Directed by Mona Fastvold. As Kaia (Gitte Witt) and her boyfriend (Christoper Abbott) work to restore her childhood home, they get an unexpected visit from her estranged sister, Christine (Stephanie Ellis), and her fiancé (Brady Corbett). The setup has mysterious promise, but the film cheaps out on a satisfying payoff.

These Final Hours **½ Directed by Zak Hilditch. A self-obsessed young man makes his way to the party-to-end-all-parties on the last day on Earth, but ends up saving the life of a little girl searching for her father. Incoherent and pointless as it is, These Final Hours moves with commendable swiftness.

Two Men in Town **½ Directed by Rachid Bouchareb. Starring Forest Whitaker, Harvey Keitel, Elen Burstyn, Brenda Blethyn, Luis Guzman. A Muslim ex-con forms a friendship with his parole officer. The setting is striking, the cast impressive. But Two Men in Town, a drama that’s built on dread and circles the question of redemption for a newly released prisoner, falls short of the mythic territory it aspires to.

The Girl Is in Trouble ** Directed by Julius Onah. Starring Columbus Short, Wilmer Walderrama, Alicia Bachleda, Jesse Spencer. A Lower East Side bartender becomes entangled in a murder mystery involving a desperate woman, a missing drug dealer and the scion of a powerful investment firm. The story has plenty of possibilities, though Onah rarely manages to put his own stamp on things.

Blackhat ** Directed by Michael Mann. Convicted hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) receives a "get out of jail free" card to join a team of American and Chinese technical experts tasked with tracking down a Balkan cyberterrorist operating from somewhere in Southeast Asia. A moody cyber-noir with not much on its mind but looking good, Blackhat is a must-see if you like your dialogue (romantic, dramatic, subtitled Cantonese) peppered with techspeak.

Tracers ** Directed by Daniel Benmayor. After New York bike messenger Cam (Taylor Lautner) falls into debt with the wrong people, he ends up bumping into the sexy Nikki (Marie Avgeropoulos), who offers him sanctuary and the chance to join her crew of thieves, who use their parkour skills to pull off their heists. The lusterless camerawork keys itself almost empathetically to the drab reality of the film’s spaces, settled and unsettled alike, but it can’t enliven the hackneyed plot.

White RabbitDirected by Tim McCann. A bullied high school student starts having visions of a rabbit that he killed when he was a kid, soon putting him in a state where his imagination threatens to cause him to carry out violent acts. While White Rabbit is not a lost cause, its difficult story of mistreatment and lashing out proves too much of a challenge to tell well.

Extraterrestrial Directed by Colin Minihan. A group of friends on a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods find themselves terrorized by alien visitors. Doesn’t amount to much beyond a mish-mash of movies we’ve seen before.

Just Before I Go * Directed by Courteney Cox. On the verge of giving up on life, a guy (Seann William Scott) travels to his hometown to make amends. A Garden State retread in which filthy jokes gradually cede ground to sentimental slush.

Mortdecai * Directed by David Koepp. Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn, Oliver Platt, Jeff Goldblum. With the Russian Mafia on his trail, an urbane but unscrupulous art dealer sets off on a quest to recover a purloined painting that’s allegedly connected to a bank account chock-full of Nazi treasure. Charmless, mirthless and witless, this waste of time is another black mark on Depp’s card, while his co-stars fare little better. Even low expectations won’t help you here.

The Cobbler ½* Directed by Thomas McCarthy. Starring Adam Sandler, Method Man, Ellen Barkin, Steve Buscemi. New York shoe repairman Max Simkin has become weary of his drab existence when he discovers that an old stitching machine in his shop has magical properties, enabling Max to fully inhabit the lives of his customers simply by trying on their shoes. A slow-motion zeppelin crash that starts as a dull-edged fable, and then spirals further and further out of control without ever growing more exciting or interesting.

Monday, May 4, 2015

This Week's DVD Releases

Mr. Turner **** Directed by Mike Leigh. Starring Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Karl Johnson, Ruth Sheen. A portrait of 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner that spotlights his artistic genius, along with the eccentric and frequently insensitive behavior that he exhibited in his private life. Turner was a master of light and image, but what stands out most about him in Leigh’s captivating biographical film is a sound. Playing the renowned Victorian-era English painter, Spall grunts and expectorates his way through his scenes, chugging along with the phlegmy belch of an old jalopy or, as the film suggests more than once, a snuffling pig.

Selma **** Directed by Ava DuVernay. Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Andre Holland, Omar J. Dorsey, Alessandro Nivola, Dylan Baker, Giovanni Ribisi, Tessa Thompson, Colman Domingo, Stephen Root, Jeremy Strong, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey. A chronicle of Martin Luther King’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. This is gripping, inspiring and sometimes terrifying historical drama, loaded with specific detail, that brings a turning point of the civil rights movement back from black-and-white obscurity to present-tense urgency.

Winter Sleep ***½ Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. With winter closing in, an Anatolia hotel owner prepares for the coming cold, but the severe weather transforms his cozy inn from a shelter into an emotional prison for an aging former actor, his resentful wife and his recently divorced sister. Staring deep into the darkness of an apparently static character, Ceylan again exhibits his gift for making interesting stories out of predetermined plots, locating small eddies of change in the midst of eternally fixed dynamics.

Black Sea **½ Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Starring Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, David Threlfall. In order to make good with his former employers, a submarine captain takes a job with a shadowy backer to search the depths of the Black Sea for a submarine rumored to be loaded with gold. Certain sequences are handled exceptionally, but others feel overblown and some characters underwhelm. That’s not to say that Black Sea is not an enjoyable — and at times, enthralling — aquatic adventure, it just never quite thrills as much as it spills, and flounders during some of its more emotional beats.

The Last Five Years **½ Directed by Richard LaGravenese. Starring Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordon. A struggling actress and her novelist lover each illustrate the struggle and deconstruction of their love affair. No, it’s not deep. But the film, a sung-through (virtually no dialogue) musical by Jason Robert Brown, is sweet and sunny and occasionally funny.

Amira & Sam **½ Directed by Sean Mullin. Starring Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley, Laith Nakli, David Rasche. An army veteran’s unlikely romance with an Iraqi immigrant is put to the test when she is faced with the prospect of deportation. An earnest and considerate examination of two people falling in love, but the movie lacks certainty when handling these characters separately.

Miss Julie **½ Directed by Liv Ullman. Starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton. Over the course of a midsummer night on a rural estate in 1890, an unsettled daughter of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy encourages her father’s valet to seduce her. A handsome production, its few settings (indoors and outdoors) painterly and period-perfect. It’s entirely too long for a filmed chamber drama of such limited stakes. But Ullmann’s adaptation reminds us that the gap between "those people," now called "the 1 percent," and the rest of the world will always be ripe for conflict, drama and tension, no matter how much we evolve.

Days of Grace ** Directed by Everardo Valerio Gout. Starring Paulina Gaitan, Carlos Bardem, Dolorès Heredia, Miguel Rodarte, Tenoch Huerta, Mario Zaragoza. Set against the fervor of the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cup games, this drama presents three stories of violence and survival in Mexico City. It’s a confident, well-made film that ends up in a blind alley of cynicism.

Spare Parts ** Directed by Sean McNamara. Starring George Lopex, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marisa Tomei, Carlos Pena, Esai Morales, José Julián, David Del Rio. The journey of four undocumented Mexican-American high school students from Phoenix, Ariz., who form a robotics club and are led by their teacher with nothing but spare parts and a dream to compete against MIT in a National Underwater Robotics Competition. In its mad hurry, the movie denies itself its own genre pleasures — chiefly, the ways assembling a ragtag robotics team and an equally ragtag robot might add a little bit of Mission: Impossible or MacGyver dynamics into a sports-style narrative.

Fifty Shades of Grey ** Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Starring Jaime Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden. A literature student’s life changes forever when she meets handsome, yet tormented, billionaire. In the annals of sexually-charged event cinema, Fifty Shades of Grey barely lights a candle let alone combusts with unbridled forbidden passion.

Black or White ** Directed by Mike Binder. Starring Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer, Jillian Estell, Bill Burr, Jennifer Ehle, Andre Holland, Gillian Jacobs, Anthony Mackie. Still reeling from his wife’s death, Elliot Anderson struggles to maintain custody of his biracial granddaughter when her grandmother begins pushing to have the girl sent back to her father, a crack addict Elliot blames for his daughter’s demise. The performances are fantastic across the board, with Costner acting in his trademark low-key naturalistic style and Spencer as the picture of no-nonsense maternal love. But their efforts can’t make up for overly simplified characters, not to mention melodramatic exchanges that sound exactly like written dialogue.

Love, Rosie Directed by Christian Ditter. Lily Collins, Claflin, Christian Cooke, Tamsin Egerton, Suki Waterhouse, James Beamish. Best friends from the time they were tykes, Rosie Dunne and Alex Stewart remain close as adults. Although each takes a different partner, an intimate attachment between them lingers. The message is more pedestrian than passionate: Life is long, and full of instant messages.

Lost River Directed by Ryan Gosling. Starring Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain de Caestecker, Matt Smith, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Reda Kateb, Barbara Steele. In the rotting remains of a once-great city, a struggling single mother is forced to take a job at a bizarre cabaret to keep her house and support her kids. Meanwhile, her eldest son’s efforts to help land him in the neighborhood nut’s crosshairs. In time, we may look back at Lost River as a fascinating mess or a misunderstood miss. As for his promise, I’d be fine if Gosling promises to never make a film like this again.

The FrontierDirected by Matt Robinowitz. Starring Max Gail, Coleman Kelly, Anastassia Sendyk, Katherine Cortez. An estranged son travels back home to confront his overbearing father to see if there is any relationship left between them. The film means well but feels generic, strained and claustrophobic (despite several scenes at a deserted beach), with tight close-ups and sudden confrontations.

Murder of a Cat * Directed by Gillian Greene. Starring Fran Kranz, Greg Kinnear, J.K. Simmons, Nikki Reed. When a cat turns up dead with an arrow through its gut, its owner vows to find the culprit and deliver him (or her) to justice. This is a perfect example of the kind of indie movie Simmons will hopefully never have to do again now that he’s won the Oscar for Whiplash.

The Pyramid * Directed by Gregory Levasseur. Starring Ashley Hinshaw, Denis O’Hare, James Buckley. An archaeological team attempts to unlock the secrets of a lost pyramid only to find themselves hunted by an insidious creature. It’s a found footage movie that feels instantly dated, even with its supposed political undertones. It’s creaky, laborious, and not, in the least bit, scary.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Listen up, America! Our neighbors are growling!

Every once in a while, when I am spending way too long at my desk or watching the NBA playoffs, my precious dog will come up next to me, look me right in the eye, and growl. It’s not a vicious growl. It’s just her way of saying "Hey, look, buddy, you brought me into this household. I didn’t ask to be here. I really had no choice in the matter. But since you did bring me here, the very least you could do is pay a little attention to me every once in a while."

And it’s true. As much as I love my dog, I will get involved for long stretches of time in some project and the result is I wind up taking her loving, faithful companionship for granted. She’s not demanding constant attention, but she doesn’t want to be ignored either.

Today we are hearing the growls coming out of this country’s African-American neighborhoods, neighborhoods that have been shamefully, disgracefully ignored and forgotten for decades. If anyone thinks the death of one black man in the back of one police vehicle is the reason for the demonstrations we’ve witnessed these past few days in Baltimore, they are overlooking the real problem. It may be the excuse for the demonstrations, but the reason for them is the same as the reason we have seen similar types of demonstrations in black communities for the last 50 years. It’s because we have systematically ignored and forgotten and pushed aside a significant portion of the American people and after decades of neglect they are saying at "the very least you could do is pay attention to me every once in a while."

How many times have you heard the cry, whether the demonstration is in Maryland or Missouri, in New York or South Carolina, "All we want is to be heard."

But we don’t hear them. We don’t pay attention to their needs and their wants and when they finally raise their voices in despair, we too often condemn them for it.

To me, the great shame of the Obama Administration is the continued neglect of the large, poor, under-employed African-American sections of America’s larger cities. I thought for sure that our first black President would try to find some resources to help black communities. But instead his focus has been solely, it seems to me, on the middle class.

Because the spotlight now is shining down on Baltimore, let’s look at the numbers there. The white unemployment rate in Baltimore is 7.4 percent. The black unemployment rate is 18.9 percent. More than 40 percent of the families living in the neighborhoods of the city where the demonstrations took place live below the poverty level.

We have yet to see the upheavals in Texas that other states have witnessed, but, by no means, does that make us immune. The unemployment rate for whites in Austin is 5.2 percent, for blacks it’s 10 percent and that unemployment rate for African-Americans nears 14 percent in Houston and San Antonio.

Income inequality resulted in the citizen uprisings in Egypt that topped the government of Hosni Mubarak and resulted in recent violent uprisings that bordered on a revolution in Spain. As former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: "You don’t want those kind of riots here."

But, if recent events are any indication, I fear that kind of uprising may be exactly what we are going to witness unless we quit catering exclusively to the rich and pandering to the middle class. That’s one of the reasons I applaud Dallas Mayor Michael Rawlings’ Grow South initiative and his focus on public education in the city. He sees the proverbial handwriting on the wall and took steps to do something – anything – about it. But initiating a program and seeing it through successfully are two completely different things.

Personally, I am ashamed at the way we have disregarded such a large segment of our population. Perhaps the thinking is "Not only do they not contribute to our political coffers, they probably don’t even go out and vote so why should we pay any attention to them." Sure. Fine. Whatever.

Forty-one years ago — nearly a half century — Randy Newman recorded the song Rednecks and one of the verses of that song went:

"Now your northern nigger's a Negro
You see he's got his dignity
Down here we're too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the nigger free
Yes he's free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he's free to be put in a cage in the South-Side of Chicago
And the West-Side
And he's free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he's free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he's free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he's free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston
They're gatherin' 'em up from miles around
Keepin' the niggers down"

It’s a shame, it’s an absolute disgrace that 50 years later we’re doing exactly the same thing. Listen up, America, our neighbors are growling. They’re growling in Baltimore. They’re growling in New York City. They’re growling in Cleveland. They’re growling in Ferguson, Mo. It’s time to let their voices be heard, to pay attention, to work at finding solutions to the problem that could literally tear this country apart.

Monday, April 27, 2015

This 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 Kink.com. 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 Kink.com 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.