Sunday, January 30, 2011

Oh, dem prehistoric women

Ran across the nifty movie box set the other day called 50 Sci-Fi classics, which was misnamed because there's not a sci-fi classic in the bunch. But you do get movies featuring actors before they were stars like Moon of the Wolf starring David Janssen, The Atomic Brain with Bradford Dillman, and Bride of the Gorilla starring Raymond Burr. There's also Mesa of Lost Women starring Jackie Coogan, Killers from Space with Peter Graves, Zontar the Thing From Venus with John Agar and The Astral Factor with Robert Foxworth.

Each disc comes in a separate envelop inside the box that contains capsule summaries of the four or five films contained in the disc inside that envelop. Some of the summaries are a hoot. Take this one from the film Voyager to the Planet of Prehistoric Women starring the inimitable Mamie Van Doren (pictured): "A group of astronauts attempt to rescue a party stranded on the surface of Venus. In the process they encounter numerous perils, including distinctly unfriendly prehistoric monsters. Their misadventures are watched from afar by a group of telepathic alien women who worship a pterodactyl named Tera."

Now I don't know how much experience any of you reading this have had with telepathic alien women who worship a pterodactyl named Tera." Take it from me. They are not to messed with. I know because I was once married to a telepathic alien woman who worshipped a pterodactyl named Tera. (Truth in advertising: I didn't know she was telepathic until after we were married. "You've been out drinking with your buddies again, haven't you." I will admit, however, her telepathy really came in handy when we were playing bridge.) I should have known mixed marriages often don't work out. Besides, my rabbi kept telling me Tera was a false idol and I kept insisting that the rabbi had to be the one to tell her that. But that woman was just so ... so ... so ... tall. I wouldn't describe her as beautiful in the classic sense of the term - back then I looked more like Mamie Van Doren than she did -- but she was magnetic. We also had somewhat different views on child-rearing. For example, I was a major proponent of the public school system while she believed if I taught the little bugger how to make fire and armed him with a club, he could make his own way in the world just fine. What finally doomed the marriage, however, was that when our neighbors in Farmers Branch complained about all the racket and the smell that emanated from her religious rites, the responding officers learned of her alien status and they deported her. I remember her screaming as she was led away "See where this 'Love they neighbor' crap gets you and you can stuff your commentary as well." And all the while Tera was screeching and flapping her wings like something out of a Peter Jackson movie. But, to this day, I still carry a picture of her wearing her little gold pterodactyl necklace and nothing else. And I gotta admit: She was the best damned bridge partner I ever had.

Beautiful Texas land up for sale - a steal at $54 million

I don't know if I have an absolute favorite drive in Texas, but the Davis Loop, if not No. 1, is very close to the top. The Loop begins and ends in Fort Davis, winds through the Davis Mountains and it takes you right by the McDonald Observatory and Sawtooth Mountain (pictured here as seen from the Davis Loop road). Right before you get to this point on the loop, on the western side of the road, is The Rockpile Ranch, which I just learned from my intrepid South Florida Correspondent, is up for sale at the dirt cheap price of $54 million. As my SFC hinted in his note to me, a savvy investor could make that amount back quickly allowing the ranch to be used as a setting for film production. No matter, click on the link to see some of the most beautiful scenery to be found in the state.

Allen's new football stadium

A couple of things I learned reading about Allen High School's new football stadium (arttist rendering is picurred here) now under construction and expected to open next year:
  • The stadium will seat only 18,000. For some reason, I thought it would be about twice that.
  • There are three larger high school football stadiums in the state, Alamo Stadium in San Antonio (23,000), Mesquite Memorial Stadium (20,000) and Farrington Field in Fort Worth (18,500).
  • In terms of enrollment, Allen High School is the third largest in the state. The first two are in the same football district as Allen, Plano and Plano East high schools.
  • At least twice, the Allen School Independent School District considered closing because of lack of students.
  • In 1960, Allen High School's graduating class contained 18 students.
  • 400 persons entered a lottery in hopes to being able to purchase the 70 available season tickets to Allen High School  that went on sale at the beginning of last season.

"King's Speech" moves to favorite role

I must admit I was surprised Tom Hooper (pictured) won the Directors Guild top award last night. I was thinking that even if Hooper's The King's Speech managed to win the best picture Oscar, I thought David Fincher would win the directing Oscar for The Social Club as well as that same recognition from the DGA. But now all bets are off and it appears The King's Speech is going to win the top Oscars as well. Now the question is what kind of coattails will it have. Will it, for instance, be strong enough to carry Geoffrey Rush to a supporting actor win over Christian Bale? The answer to that could come as early as tonight when the Screen Actors Guild announces its year-end awards. I'm still betting on The Fighter to win the ensemble award, but if The King's Speech wins that one, then the film is going to be unstoppable, a juggernaut.

Why has The King's Speech overtaken The Social Network as the awards darling? The answer is simple. Like The Social Network, it is impeccably written, acted and crafted but, unlike its main competitor, you just feel so good about the world after the movie ends. And that means a lot to the folks who vote for these awards.

My Top 25 College Basketball teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Ohio State 21-0 (1)
2.  Duke 19-1 (2)
3.  Kansas 19-1 (3)
4.  Washington 15-4 (4)
5.  Kentucky 15-4 (6)
6.  Texas 17-3 (7)
7.  Pittsburgh 19-2 (5)
8.  BYU 19-1 (9)
9.  Purdue 17-4 (8)
10. Wisconsin 15-4 (14)
11. Villanova 17-3 (10)
12. San Diego State 18-1 (12)
13. Georgetown 15-5 (20)
14. Louisville 16-4 (15)
15. Arizona 17-4 (16)
16. Vanderbilt 15-4 (13)
17. Saint Mary's, Calif. 16-3 (18)
18. Syracuse 18-3 (11)
19. Maryland 13-7 (23)
20. Illinois 14-7 (17)
21. West Virginia 13-6 (19)
22. Connecticut 17-2 (25)
23. Missouri 16-3 (22)
24. North Carolina 14-5 (24)
25. UNLV 16-5 (21)

My Top 10 NBA Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  San Antonio Spurs 40-7 (2)
2.  Miami Heat 32-14 (1)
3.  Boston Celtics 35-11 (3)
4.  Los Angeles Lakers 33-14 (4)
5.  Orlando Magic 30-17 (5)
6.  Chicago Bulls 33-14 (6)
7.  New Orleans Hornets 31-17 (7)
8.  Denver Nuggets 28-18 (9)
9.  Dallas Mavericks 31-15 (8)
10. Oklahoma City Thunder 30-16 (10)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Mademoiselle Chambon"

Sandrine Kiberlain is a fragile beauty and wonderful French actress who is not as well known here as she should be. Perhaps Mademoiselle Chambon will help rectify that oversight.

She plays Véronique Chambon, a refined primary school teacher and violinist who finds herself attracted to Jean (rugged Vincent Lindon), the working-class father of one of her pupils. And 50-ish Jean, who is happily married to a woman who works on an assembly line, discovers he has romantic feeling toward Veronique.

Their tentative affair begins innocently. They meet when Jean picks up his boy at school. Then he agrees to address Veronique's class about his construction job, and she asks him to come to her small apartment to fix a window.

Don't jump to conclusions just because this is a French film. The resolution of their unlikely mutual admiration will come as a surprise.

Working from a well-thought-out script co-written by director Stéphane Brizé, the two stars deliver impressive, understated performances. In a particularly poignant scene, Jean takes his 80-year-old father to a funeral home to choose a coffin for his eventual demise.

Perhaps my brief synopsis will entice you to rent and watch this beautiful film. I guarantee that if you do, you will be as impressed with Mademoiselle Kiberlain as I am.

Currently Available on DVD: "Valhalla Rising"

Valhalla Rising should get some sort of prize for mismarketing. The film’s turgid title, poster art, and promotional campaign promise nonstop Viking mayhem, a sort of Norse 300 wallowing in medieval macho gore. Unleash the berserkers and all that.

Instead, what the talented, unfocused young director Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson) has delivered is a violent but largely static art movie, one with overt nods to classic ’70s head-trips like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and El Topo. Fascinating for its gonzo formal daring and brooding attitude, Valhalla is still a trial for viewers seeking characters, plot, and things happening. The only entertainment you may have in connection with this movie is reading outraged online reviews posted by action-movie crybabies who didn’t get their testosterone.

It’s there, just doled out in inscrutable bursts. The year is 1000 AD. Danish star Mads Mikkelsen (who got his start in Refn’s Pusher back in 1996) has one of his most totemic roles as One-Eye, a mute warrior kept in a cage by a local chief and brought out for arranged fights that are muddy, bloody, and brief. Where’s One-Eye from? Is he any relation to the Norse god Odin? And why does he keep having crimson Doomsday flash-forwards? Refn isn’t saying, and there won’t be a quiz.

After a disemboweling or two, One-Eye and the young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who has become his ward and translator join up with a group of Christian Vikings led by a war-hungry fanatic who dreams of glory in the Crusades. Their boat takes a right turn in a mist, though, and the soldiers find themselves wandering in circles in the New World, arrows appearing from nowhere to pierce their throats.

Shot largely in the Scottish highlands, Valhalla Rising has a starkly beautiful visual sensibility that shifts from the grim Wagnerian peaks of the early scenes to the bright, leafy clarity of the sequences in North America. The soundtrack of droning avant-metal provides further atmospherics as well as a link to Popol Vuh, Werner Herzog’s house band back in the 1970s. The homages don’t stop there: One-Eye is a figure out of a Sergio Leone western, and the vision of would-be conquerors adrift in a land they can’t understand owes as much to Terrence Malick’s The New World as Herzog’s Aguirre.

If only the pieces added up to an experience that sticks and that didn’t finally succumb to a shrug of entropy. As anyone who saw last year’s scarifying Bronson knows, this filmmaker is obsessed with extreme masculinity and its discontents. Valhalla Rising, though, is the work of an artist temporarily out of ideas and coasting on his influences. That he can make creative exhaustion seem gripping — and parts of this movie are undeniable — is proof he’ll be back, and in force.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 1

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 2

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 3

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 4

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 5

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 6

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 7

The Best Films of 2010: No. 8

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 9

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 10

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 11

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 12

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 13

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 14

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 15

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 16

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 17

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 18

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 19

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 20

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 21

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 22

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 23

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No.24

The 25 Best Films of 2010: No. 25

Slap Happy

The Great Films: 2008, 2009

It's getting to be that time of year again when I begin to compile my list of the 25 best movies of the year. As a prelude I revisit the Top 25 from past years. Click on the titles to learn more about the films.


2008
1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
2. WALL-E
3. Slumdog Millionaire
4. Man on Wire
5. The Edge of Heaven
6. The Class
7. Waltz With Bashir
8. Gomorrah
9. The Dark Knight
10. Milk
11. The Wrestler
12. Rachel Getting Married
13 Happy-Go-Lucky
14. A Christmas Tale
15. Wendy and Lucy
16. Frost/Nixon
17. Frozen River
18. Paranoid Park
19. The Visitor
20. I’ve Loved You So Long
21. Iron Man
22. Synechoche, New York
23. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
24. Revolutionary Road
25. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

2009
1. The Hurt Locker
2. Up
3. An Education
4. The Beaches of Agnes
5. 35 Shots of Rum
6. Up in the Air
7. Summer Hours
8. Avatar
9. In the Loop
10. Fantastic Mr. Fox
11. District 9
12. Star Trek
13. Bright Star
14. The White Ribbon
15. Coraline
16. Let the Right One In
17. Sugar
18. Of Time and the City
19 A Serious Man
20. Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” By Sapphire
21. Where the Wild Things Are
22. (500) Days of Summer
23. Inglourious Basterds
24. Moon
25. Public Enemies

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Cairo Time"

Cairo Time, with its travelogue scenes of pyramids, the Nile River and grand bazaars, feels like Roman Holiday done Merchant-Ivory style. It looks beautiful, is populated with attractive, well-attired people and isn't intricate or weighty, despite intrusive, swelling music that begs to differ.

Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette Grant, a New York-based magazine writer who arrives in Cairo for a rendezvous with her husband, an administrator for a United Nations refugee camp in Gaza. In-camp strife keeps him waylaid, so Juliette waits for weeks in luxury-hotel languor, attending boring embassy parties, fending off leering young men and finding that Western attitudes about gender relations and child labor don't fly in Egypt.

Shepherding Juliette and gently reproaching her naiveté is her husband's ex-colleague Tareq (Alexander Siddig), who happens to be single, handsome and sophisticated. Circumstance has given Juliette a chance to question her life and marriage as she reaches middle age. But in this film, an affair would be tawdry and taboo, so instead we get long walks and many longing stares.

Clarkson flawlessly pulls off the passive approach her role demands and looks fantastic, even if it seems a stretch that someone stuck in foreign-travel limbo could pull off shampoo-ad hair and lovely, wrinkle-free dresses every day.

The plot doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, but Cairo Time works on an emotional level and is a hassle-free way to sample Egypt.

The Great Films: 2006, 2007

It's getting to be that time of year again when I begin to compile my list of the 25 best movies of the year. As a prelude I revisit the Top 25 from past years. Click on the titles to learn more about the films.

2006
1. Pan’s Labyrinth
2. Army of Shadows (a 1969 film finally released in the U.S. this year)
3. United 93
4. The Departed
5. Letters From Iwo Jima
6. The Queen
7. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhsan
8. Half Nelson
9. L’Enfant (The Child)
10. Children of Men
11. The Death of Mr. Lazarescue
12. Volver
13. Little Miss Sunshine
14. Casino Royale
15. Old Joy
16. Iraq in Fragments
17. Flags of Our Fathers
18. Happy Feet
19. Babel
20. Little Children
21. Inland Empire
22. A Prairie Home Companion
23. Brick
24. An Inconvenient Truth
25. V for Vendetta

2007
1. Ratatouille
2. No Country for Old Men
3. There Will Be Blood
4. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
5. Atonement
6. The Lives of Others
7. Once
8. No End in Sight
9. Persepolis
10. Away From Her
11. The Bourne Ultimatum
12. The Savages
13. Knocked Up
14. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
15. Michael Clayton
16. Juno
17. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
18. Eastern Promises
19. Zodiac
20. Superbad
21. I’m Not There
22. Into the Wild
23. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford
24. Waitress
25. Gone Baby Gone

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Waking Sleeping Beauty"

Imagine a world without Ariel from The Little Mermaid or Belle from Beauty and the Beast. No motormouth genie from Aladdin, no noble Simba from The Lion King. And maybe Buzz Lightyear or Cowboy Woody never existed, either.

If Walt Disney's once-mighty animation studio had, in the early 1980s, continued its downward trend of failed concepts and lackluster 'toons, it's quite likely that these now-iconic figures - not to mention merchandising brands - would never have seen the light of day, or of a projector bulb.

Don Hahn's Waking Sleeping Beauty offers a fascinating, albeit self-congratulatory, account of how Disney's fabled animation department was re-energized and re-imagined between 1984 and 1994. It's the story of Hollywood titans - Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the late Frank Wells - and of Roy Disney, Walt's nephew, and of a group of upstart artists and writers drawing (so to speak) from the Mouse House's past and looking to its future. And of a lyricist, the late Howard Ashman, who injected a playful Broadway-musical sensibility into the Disney-animation formula.

With a first-person voice-over by Hahn, a Disney-animation exec at the time, but also surprisingly candid commentary from Eisner, Katzenberg, and Peter Schneider (another animation topper), Waking Sleeping Beauty is a story of egos and artistry, of failed projects and inspired collaborations. At the outset, we see a small band of young animators working without enthusiasm on The Black Cauldron. (And we see a lot of cheesy homemade videos of office parties and backlot shenanigans, too.)

But under the leadership of Eisner, Katzenberg, and Schneider - and who was responsible for what remains a matter of heated dispute - a new sense of purpose and creative drive kicked in. The Little Mermaid, with its Ashman and Howard Menken songbook, started things rolling, and by the time Beauty and the Beast had its work-in-progress premiere at the 1991 New York Film Festival, Disney was not only making millions with its animated fare, but it was earning critical raves as well.

Eisner and Wells' alliance with a former Disney artist, John Lasseter, and his CG-animation start-up, Pixar, was just icing on the cake.

The reunion of Shake Russell and Poor David

I heard Shake Russell sing long before there was a Poor David's Pub, back in the days of the Alliance Wagon Yard in Austin and a now-forgotten Dallas club on the east side Greenville Avenue just north of what is now SMU Boulevard. Back then, in the early 1970s, Shake had joined the late, great John Vandiver in a band called Ewing Street Times. I think my favorite Ewing Street Times was a brooding ballad called "Nobodys," but Shake was leaving his stamp on the band with a song he had composed called "Deep in the West," which is still his signature tune. (You can go here to listen to Shake sing "Deep in the West" as well as David Rodriguez's absolutely eloquent "Ballad of a Snow Leopard.")

Attending a Ewing Street Times show was always wonderful because loyal fans in the crowd would call out tunes, always original EST tunes, for the the band to play. "Deep in the West" was probably the most requested tune, along with Shake's "Temper Temper" and "Pretty As a Picture." I would always call for "Too Young to Date." Now, as far as I know, there's never been a song called "Too Young to Date," although it does sound like a legitimate song title, but whenever I called it out, I could see Shake smile because he knew that either my little brother or I were somewhere out there in the audience. And because it did sound like a legitimate song title, others in the crowd would go, "Yeah, sing 'Too Young to Date'."

After EST disbanded, Shake wandered around for a while, finding himself in Chicago, back home in Kansas City and eventually in the Montrose area of Houston where he joined another singer-songwriter from Kansas City to form the incredible Shake Russell-Dana Cooper Band. I first heard this ensemble, as I recall, at a Kerrville Folk Festival in 1977, 1978, sometime around there and returned to Dallas to insist that David Card, who had recently opened his original Poor David's Pub on McKinney, book the band into his establishment. David later told me it was the first time he had ever booked a band without hearing it first. But the Shake Russell-Dana Cooper Band quickly became a Dallas favorite and Poor David's was packed every time the band played, coming to hear such original compositions as "You've Got a Lover," "Song on the Radio," "Two Silver Hearts," "Troubles," "Hard to Find a Smile,." and, of course, "Deep in the West."

The band followed Poor David when he opened his larger establishment on Lowest Greenville Avenue in what was formerly a barber college. After the band broke up, Shake and Jack Saunders often returned as a duo, but his appearances in Dallas became less and less frequent and when Shake did play here it was often at a private party, in someone's back yard or at the nice Allgood Cafe.

I never understood why Shake never became a star on the magnitude of a James Taylor. He has just as pleasantly distinctive voice as Taylor's and while Taylor hasn't written a new composition of note in at least 20-30 years, Shake continues to turn out great songs. Not only that, he has teamed with mandolin player Doug Floyd and bassist Mike Roberts to form the best showcase for Shake's music since the days of the Shake Russell-Dana Cooper Band.

I've just received word that Shake and his two musical compadres will be making what I believe will be Shake's very first appearance at the latest incarnation of Poor David's Pub in the Cedars on Saturday, March 19. Man, it would be nice to see a lot of the old gang there, people like Paul "Snake" Porter, Diane Ferguson and the other regulars from those days in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. But I know for sure I will be there. In fact, I can hardly wait.

Kunkle for Mayor?

The Dallas Observer's Robert Wilonsky talked to former police chief David Kunkle today and Kunkle told him he is seriously considering a run for mayor. Kunkle said he would decide within the week.

I had never thought of a "Mayor Kunkle" before I read this, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Of all the candidates who have announced or whose names have ricocheted around the media walls, Kunkle's is the one I find most appealing. Kunkle turned things around at the Dallas Police Department and, when it comes down to it, the mayor of Dallas is nothing more than a glorified traffic cop anyway. Besides, his spouse is one bright individual who already knows her way around City Hall.

Mayor Kunkle? I like the sound of that.

The Cutler Affair

The conspiracy theorists are out in force on this one and once again they have it wrong.

There is one supreme boss on a football team. That boss has the title of Head Coach (regardless of how Jerry Jones feels). What he says during the course of a football game goes. If the head coach wants to go for it on fourth and inches, it's up to the offensive coordinator to come up with a play that will be successful on fourth and inches. And if the coach wants the fullback to take a direct snap on the play, that's what's going to happen.

I bring all this up because it was Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith who told his quarterback Jay Cutler to get off the field at the start of the second half of Sunday's Bears-Green Bay Packers NFC Championship game. That makes the extent of Cutler's injury irrelevant. If the head coach says you're not playing, you're not playing. Same thing happened to Cutler's replacement, Todd Collins, although Smith pulled Collins from the game in favor of Caleb Hanie for entirely different reasons than he pulled Cutler for Collins. But the reasons are just as irrelevant as Cutler's injury. What the coach says goes. So get off it, conspiracy theorists. If you're dumb enough to think Cutler should have "gutted it out" and played the rest of the game, then blame Smith, not Cutler.

The Great Films: 2004, 2005

It's getting to be that time of year again when I begin to compile my list of the 25 best movies of the year. As a prelude I revisit the Top 25 from past years. Click on the titles to learn more about the films.

2004
1. Sideways
2. Million Dollar Baby
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4. Before Sunset
5. The Incredibles
6. House of Flying Daggers
7. Maria Full of Grace
8. Mooladé
9. Tarnation
10. Bad Education
11. Vera Drake
12. Hero
13. Kill Bill: Volume 2
14. Good Bye, Dragon Inn
15. Spider-Man 2
16. The Aviator
17. Notre Musique
18. Hotel Rwanda
19. Kinsey
20. A Very Long Engagement
21. Collateral
22. Fahrenheit 9/11
23. The Sea Inside
24. Dogville
25. I Heart Huckabees

2005
1. Brokeback Mountain
2. Capote
3. Grizzly Man
4. The Best of Youth
5. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
6. A History of Violence
7. The Squid and the Whale
8. King Kong
9. Good Night, and Good Luck
10. Caché
11. Kings and Queen
12. Pride and Prejudice
13. The Constant Gardener
14. Saraband
15. Junebug
16. Howl’s Moving Castle
17. 2046
18. Crash
19. Syriana
20. Me and You and Everyone We Know
21. Tropical Malady
22. Munich
23. Mysterious Skin
24. Match Point
25. Cinderella Man

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Texas Tribune: Da Mayor not likely to win Senate nomination

Writing in the Texas Tribune, Evan Van Ness predicts that up to seven candidates, possibly including Da Mayor, will likely compete for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison. Whether Da Mayor finally decides to run, Ness says, depends on how well he can raise money, collect endorsements and his poll numbers, especially as they compare to Secretary of State Roger Williams, since, according to Ness, both Da Mayor and Williams will be going after the same bloc of voters.

In the end, however, Ness says it really doesn't matter if Da Mayor runs or not, because the runoff will be between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (whom many are saying is the slam dunk winner anyway, but Ness says "don't be too sure just yet") and Tea Party activists Solicitor General Ted Cruz or Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams,

Haven't yet thought about whether any Democrat will commit ritual suicide by entering the race.

Oscar nominations reaction

Only three real surprises in the Oscar nominations announced this morning and all of them were pleasant surprises. First and foremost, Winter's Bone, the film I thought was the second-best picture of the year but one I was afraid the Academy would overlook, made the final 10 for best picture and also secured a well-deserved supporting actor nod for John Hawkes. Jennifer Lawrence being nominated for best actress in the picture was a given and I was also delighted to see the film's writers nominated for the screenplay they adapted. I know Winter's Bone won't win any of those Oscars, nor should it, but the nominations are victories on their own.

I was also shocked, in a positive way, that Christopher Nolan was not nominated for directing the overrated Inception. He has his loyal following, however, who are still upset over his Dark Knight snub and they will be out in force critizingf the omission. For some strange reason, however, his stilted screenplay was nominated.

In the technical categories, I was glad to see the sound branch of the Academy recognize Unstoppable for its sound editing.

My only real disappointment is that Andrew Garfield of The Social Network did not receive a supporting actor nomination, but I must admit that's a mighty strong field of five who were nominated: Hawkes, along with Christian Bale (the favorite to win it), Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo and Geoffrey Rush. I was slightly disappointed that Julianne Moore did not receive a best actress nomination for The Kids Are All Right, but her absence from the field gives co-star Annette Bening a much better chance of upsetting Natalie Portman for the Oscar in this category.

The Great Films: 2002, 2003

It's getting to be that time of year again when I begin to compile my list of the 25 best movies of the year. As a prelude I revisit the Top 25 from past years. Click on the titles to learn more about the films.

2002
1. Y Tu Mama Tambien
2. Talk to Her
3. About Schmidt
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
5. Spirited Away
6. The Pianist
7. The Fast Runner
8. Time Out
9. 24 Hour Party People
10. Bloody Sunday
11. Far From Heaven
12. Adaptation
13. Chicago
14. The Hours
15. Rabbit-Proof Fence
16. Minority Report
17. Punch-Drunk Love
18. The Piano Teacher
19. Morvern Callar
20. Catch Me If You Can
21. Gangs of New York
22. About a Boy
23. Lovely & Amazing
24. The Good Girl
25. Femme Fatale

2003
1. Lost in Translation
2. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
3. American Splendor
4. Capturing the Friedmans
5. Finding Nemo
6. The Fog of War
7. The Triplets of Belleville
8. Mystic River
9. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
10. Spellbound
11. School of Rock
12. The Station Agent
13. The Magdalene Sisters
14. A Mighty Wind
15. In America
16. City of God
17. Dirty Pretty Things
18. Cold Mountain
19. 21 Grams
20. Elephant
21. Kill Bill, Vol.1
22. House of Sand and Fog
23. Seabiscuit
24. The Barbarian Invasions
25. Shattered Glass

Monday, January 24, 2011

Currently available on DVD: "Everyone Else"

Slow-moving and sly, Everyone Else, from the German director Maren Ade, dissects a relationship between a man and a woman on vacation in Sardinia in ways that are both stunningly perceptive and a little frightening, too.

Chris (Lars Eidinger) is a talented but still struggling architect whose mother has lent him her house in the rocky hills of the idyllic Italian isle. Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) is a music-biz publicist who comes across as flaky, a little off. For the first half of Ade's sharply observed piece, the young couple eat, sleep, make love, argue, reconcile, argue, reconcile. Like a German mumblecore film, not much happens. There is a lot of talk and a lot of silence, and deep, conflicting emotions are revealed.

And then, after a visit from a successful architect (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and his wife, an equally successful designer (Nicole Marischka), the fissures begin to crack wide open. While some of the tension between Chris and Gitti has to do with class and background (he's better educated, more sophisticated, can speak Italian), the real dissonance comes out of the opposing desires and expectations each harbors for the other.

In a sense, Everyone Else traces, over a stretch of days on the sunny Mediterranean, the whole trajectory of a relationship. It's a marriage in miniature: courtship, consummation, conflict; love and hate; the longing for freedom vs. the need for companionship.

Everyone Else takes a few small, strange turns toward the end, but the turns feel truthful. And Eidinger and Minichmayr are so thoroughly inside their characters' skins that the experience of watching them begins to feel more like voyeurism than cinema.

This is a film that will surely try the patience of some, but there's wisdom here: jagged shards of wisdom, at the very least.

The Great Films: 2000, 2001

It's getting to be that time of year again when I begin to compile my list of the 25 best movies of the year. As a prelude I revisit the Top 25 from past years. Click on the titles to learn more about the films.

2000
1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
2. You Can Count on Me
3. Traffic
4. Almost Famous
5. Chicken Run
6. Yi Yi
7. Beau Travail
8. Before Night Falls
9. The Wind Will Carry Us
10. George Washington
11. House of Mirth
12. High Fidelity
13. Ratcatcher
14. Chuck & Buck
15. Best in Show
16. Wonder Boys
17. Requiem for a Dream
18. Croupier
19. Erin Brockovich
20. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
21. Nurse Betty
22. Hamlet
23. Quills
24. Dancer in the Dark
25. Gladiator

2001
1. In the Bedroom
2. In the Mood for Love
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
4. Ghost World
5. The Circle
6. Gosford Park
7. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
8. Under the Sand
9. Mulholland Dr.
10. Memento
11. Shrek
12. Waking Life
13. Amores Perros
14. Together
15. The Gleaners and I
16. Sexy Beast
17. The Deep End
18. Monsters, Inc.
19. The Royal Tenenbaums
20. Moulin Rouge
21. Black Hawk Down
22. Amelie
23. Monster’s Ball
24. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
25. Eureka

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"The King's Speech" stutters back into the race

I did not see this coming. I thought The Social Network was on the same roll that The Hurt Locker found itself on this time last year. But, by winning the Producers Guild award for best best picture, The King's Speech is creeping up on the outside in this race. I don't think it has overtaken The Social Network yet, but it is making the race a little more interesting. I stil think the Directors Guild award will tell us a lot as will the SAG awards if either of the two front-runners win it. (Last year SAG gave its best picture equivalent to Inglourious Basterds and I hear the actors are leaning to The Fighter this year.)

Roll over Beethoven, Bach is No. 1

Anthony Tommasini, writing today in The New York Times, listed his choices for the 10 best classical composers of all time. Classical music music, in one of the greatested understatements of all time, is not exactly my forte, so I'm going to defer to Mr. Tommasini on this one, even though I have no idea of who Mr. Tommasini is. Now, if the late, great John Ardoin, who also wrote for the Times as well as Stereo Review, The Dallas Morning News and other publications, had come up with a list like this, I would trust it implicitly and endorse it wholeheartedly.

Tommasini chose Johann Sebastian Bach (pictured) No. 1 "for his matchless ... masterly musical engineering," whatever that means. The rest of his Top 10:
2. Ludwig van Beethoven
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
4. Franz Peter Schubert
5. Claude Achille Debussy
6. Igor Stravinsky
7. Johannes Brahms
8. Giuseppe Verdi
9. Richard Wagner
10. Bela Bartok

Gee, and my favorite piece of classical music, 1812 Overture, was obviously written by some clown not even in the Top 10. Goes to show you what I know.

My Top 25 College Basketball teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Ohio State 20-0 (1)
2.  Duke 18-1 (2)
3.  Kansas 18-1 (3)
4.  Washington 15-4 (4)
5.  Pittsburgh 19-1 (6)
6.  Kentucky 15-4 (7)
7.  Texas 16-3 (9)
8.  Purdue 17-3 (5)
9.  BYU 18-1 (8)
10. Villanova 17-2 (11)
11. Syracuse 18-2 (14)
12. San Diego State 18-0 (12)
13. Vanderbilt 14-4 (18)
14. Wisconsin 14-4 (19)
15. Louisville 15-4 (16)
16. Arizona 16-4 (15)
17. Illinois 14-6 (21)
18. Saint Mary's, Calif. 15-3 (10)
19. West Virginia 12-5 (17)
20. Georgetown 14-5 (24)
21. UNLV 15-5 (13)
22. Missouri 16-3 (NR)
23. Maryland 12-7 (20)
24. North Carolina 13-5 (22)
25. Connecticut 16-2 (NR)
Dropped out: Belmont, Texas A&M

My Top 10 NBA teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Miami Heat 31-13 (1)
2.  San Antonio Spurs 37-7 (2)
3.  Boston Celtics 33-10 (3)
4.  Los Angeles Lakers 32-13 (4)
5.  Orlando Magic 29-15 (6)
6.  Chicago Bulls 30-14 (5)
7.  New Orleans Hornets 29-16 (9)
8.  Dallas Mavericks 28-15 (7)
9.  Denver Nuggets 24-18 (8)
10. Oklahoma City Thunder 28-15 (10)

Friday, January 21, 2011

If I could name the Best Picture nominees

A couple of days ago I posted my predictions as to what the nominees will be in the major categories when the Oscars are announced Tuesday morning. Now here are the 10 films, listed alphabetically, I would have as the best picture nominees:

127 Hours
Black Swan
Ghost Writer
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Currently available on DVD: "Exit Through the Gift Shop"

In the enthralling Exit Through the Gift Shop, a curious, talkative Frenchman with pork-chop sideburns runs around videotaping everything -- his wife, his children, his friends, the customers at his Los Angeles clothing store.

Thierry Guetta isn't a filmmaker; he's just a compulsive shooter, and he doesn't go anywhere without his camera. When Guetta discovers that his cousin has a secret identity, Space Invader, and that he pastes small, tiled re-creations of the aliens from the classic video game in public spaces, he begins filming the man's nightly escapades.

Their antics lead Guetta to meet another street artist -- Shepard Fairey, now famous for the iconic Obama "Hope" poster -- and then another and another. After almost a year of filming, Guetta decides he is going to make a movie about street artists, who create their often illegal work in the middle of the night or in bursts of daring in daylight. Guetta feeds on the danger, the adrenaline; he loves the ride, the excitement. But he just shoots and shoots, never going over his footage, and crates of tapes pile up.

And then Guetta hears about Banksy, a British graffiti artist who has pulled off some of the bravest and most clever street art of all, including paintings on the Palestinian segregation wall (the film contains footage of Banksy on the day he pulled the stunt). Guetta uses every connection he has, but the highly secretive and reclusive Banksy remains out of reach. Everyone tells Guetta he'll never get him.

But in 2006, when Banksy (pictured here as he appears in the movie) visits L.A. and needs an assistant, Guetta gets a huge break. Until this point, Exit Through the Gift Shop has been a rollicking, informative look at the world of graffiti art and the people who make it, risking high fines and even arrest to fulfill their creative needs.

Once Banksy enters the picture, though, the movie begins to change. Guetta becomes an increasingly active participant in the street-art world, not just a documentarian. (There's absolutely riveting footage of Guetta and Banksy at Disneyland, where they hang an effigy of a Guantánamo Bay prisoner on the Big Thunder Railroad ride, a prank that leads to big trouble.) And when Banksy tells Guetta that he's filmed enough and should start editing the footage he's amassed, Exit Through the Gift Shop becomes another movie entirely  -- a provocative and absorbing exploration of what constitutes art, the creative process and the power of hype to triumph over talent.

The movie offers a tantalizing peek into Banksy's studio and his methods -- the never-photographed artist appears only in shadows and with his voice digitally garbled -- but viewers expecting a film devoted to his career will be disappointed, since Banksy's work takes a second seat to Guetta's unexpected (and scarily prolific) art.

Is Exit Through the Gift Shop the big hoax some have claimed? Is Guetta, now a successful artist known as Mister Brainwash who has had exhibitions in New York and L.A., simply the latest prank by an artist known for his mischievous streak? In this case, whether the movie is genuine doesn't matter (although I'm highly suspicious of the professional sheen of "madness" displayed by the edited footage Guetta shows Banksy).

What makes Exit Through the Gift Shop so fascinating -- and it is riveting, regardless of your interest in the art world -- is the eloquent way in which it illustrates how beauty and meaning really are in the eye of the beholder and how that eternal phrase still holds true: There's a sucker born every minute.

Why did it take so long for this star to be born?

There was only a 17-year gap - 1937 to 1954 - between the Janet Gaynor/Fredric March A Star is Born and the version starring Judy Garland and James Mason. Only 22 years later, we got the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version. Although to me it seems like yesterday, that one was 35 years ago now, so I guess yesterday's announcement that Clint Eastwood will direct version Numero Four of this tired tale, this one starring Beyonce (no word yet on who will play her Norman), should come under the heading "It's about time." But, then again ....

One can only hope Eastwood will put an entirely different spin on the picture (in an act of supreme defiance, a drunken Esther drowns while trying to swim the English channel; Norman, while drying out at a rehab clinic, realizes he's gay and escapes with the man of his dreams; when it is discovered Esther has absolutely no acting abilities, she's forced to make porn films directed by Norman; the characters are not named Norman and Esther at all, but Ozzie and Harriet). Of course, the chances of anything like this happening are slim. It's far more likely that the film will end with Beyonce (pictured above) declaring "I'm Mrs. Norman Maine."

Then, again, Eastwood could cast Robin Williams in the March/Mason/Kristofferson role which would mean all bets would be off. But that's the anarchist in me coming out again and anarchists, unfortunately, are not running the studios these days.

The Great Films: 1998, 1999

It's getting to be that time of year again when I begin to compile my list of the 25 best movies of the year. As a prelude I revisit the Top 25 from past years. Click on the titles to learn more about the films.

1998
1. Saving Private Ryan
2. Shakespeare in Love
3. The Big Lebowski
4. The Truman Show
5. Dark City
6. The Celebration
7. Hilary and Jackie
8. Elizabeth
9. Pleasantville
10. Waking Ned Devine
11. Run, Lola, Run
12. American History X
13. Gods and Monsters
14. The Mask of Zorro
15. The Interview
16. My Name Is Joe
17. Out of Sight
18. The Negotiator
19. Croupier
20. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
21. A Simple Plan
22. Les Miserables
23. Ever After
24. The Mighty
25. The General

1999
1. American Beauty
2. The Matrix
3. The Sixth Sense
4. Being John Malkovich
5. October Sky
6. Flight Club
7. The Insider
8. Topsy-Turvy
9. Magnolia
10. The Boondock Saints
11. The Straight Story
12. Toy Story 2
13. The Green Mile
14. The Cider House Rules
15. Boys Don’t Cry
16. The Iron Giant
17. Sunshine
18. Girl, Interrupted
19. The Hurricane
20. All About My Mother
21. Mansfield Park
22. Angela’s Ashes
23. The War Zone
24. Election
25. Three Kings

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Predicting the major Oscar nominations

The biggest surprises of this year's Oscar contest is that there are no surprises looming. Of course something stupid like The Blind Side being nominated for best picture last year, could happen again. I mean how could any sane person predict something like that? It also seems all the races except supporting actress are over already as well. I guess the only debate is whether True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld gets nominated in the lead or supporting actress category. I always thought she belonged in supporting, but a lot of folks are pushing her for lead. Here's how I see the nominees shaping up (with an asterisk signifying the winner in each category):

PICTURE
127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
* The Social Network
The Town
Toy Story 3
True Grit
I would rather see Winter's Bone in that list in place of The Town, but I'm afraid it's not going to happen.

ACTOR
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
* Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours
Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter
I have less confidence in Wahlberg than any of the other picks. Robert Duvall could get in there if enough voters see Get Low. The same for Javier Bardem for Biutiful or Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine.

ACTRESS
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
* Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Moore is the weak link in this five but it think she gets the nomination over Lesley Manville for Another Year, Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine or even Naomi Replace for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

SUPPORTING ACTOR
* Christian Bale, The Fighter
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
I would love to see John Hawkes get nominated for Winter's Bone, but I'm afraid his chances are as good as that of the picture's.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Mila Kunis, Black Swan
* Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

DIRECTOR
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
* David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
Christopher Nolan, Inception
David O. Russell, The Fighter

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Black Swan
The Fighter
Inception
The Kids Are All Right
* The King's Speech

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
127 Hours
* The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone
The Town could bump 127 Hours.

OTHER LIKELY WINNERS
Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
Art Direction: Inception
Cinematography: Inception
Costumes: Alice in Wonderland
Documentary: Inside Job
Editing: The Social Network
Makeup: Alice in Wonderland
Visual Effects: Inception (possibly unanimously)

The Great Films: 1996, 1997

It's getting to be that time of year again when I begin to compile my list of the 25 best movies of the year. As a prelude I revisit the Top 25 from past years. Click on the titles to learn more about the films.

1996
1. Fargo
2. Hamlet
3. Shine
4. The English Patient
5. Breaking the Waves
6. Secrets and Lies
7. Sling Blade
8. Lone Star
9. Shall We Dance?
10. Jerry Maguire
11. Courage Under Fire
12. Trainspotting
13. Welcome to the Dollhouse
14. A Time to Kill
15. Michael Collins
16. The Crucible
17. The People vs. Larry Flynt
18. Twelfth Night
19. Primal Fear
20. Hard Eight
21. Jude
22. Basquiat
23. The Birdcage
24. Looking for Richard
25. Fly Away Home

1997
1. Titanic
2. Life is Beautiful
3. L.A. Confidential
4. As Good As It Gets
5. Princess Mononoke
6. The Sweet Hereafter
7. Good Will Hunting
8. The Ice Storm
9. The Game
10. Affliction
11. Eve’s Bayou
12. Boogie Nights
13. The Wings of the Dove
14. The Full Monty
15. Donnie Brasco
16. Mrs. Brown
17. The Apostle
18. The Fifth Element
19. Contact
20. The Hanging Garden
21. Men in Black
22. The Boxer
23. Jackie Brown
24. Lost Highway
25. The Devil's Advocate

Currently available on DVD: "Countdown to Zero"

Illustrating the many ways nuclear weapons could kill you makes Countdown to Zero one of the most frightening documentaries you'll ever see, or endure.

Writer-director Lucy Walker doesn't uncover anything new, but building on interviews with experts and leaders including Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev, she puts together an impressively urgent document. In one segment, we learn how poorly guarded nuclear material is in Russia, where a guy (who wanted money to buy a Jaguar) once nearly succeeded in smuggling out the heart of a bomb. Another recounts the follies of U.S. military planes that crashed while carrying nukes, another the Strangelovian moments in which the U.S. and Russia nearly stumbled into total war.

Then there are the really alarming scenes.

We learn from physicists that making highly enriched uranium is well within the capacity of many countries, and that with such material in hand, making a nuclear bomb is a cinch. Near the end comes a nauseating description of the cascade of woe that would result from a nuke being detonated in Times Square.

A fatuous happy ending calling for "diplomacy" and "treaties" suggests the future lies in a nuclear-free world. But how is determined discussion working out when it comes to the Iranian menace? The now-famous ex-CIA figure Valerie Plame Wilson (pictured above in a scene from the film) unambiguously says, "Without question, Iran is trying to get a nuclear bomb." Yet the movie simply hurries along -- without pausing to consider whether Iran might be stopped from crossing this deadly line.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Currently available of DVD: "The Disappearance of Alice Creed"

The British actor Eddie Marsan (The New World, Happy-Go-Lucky) does clenched rage and disappointment better than anyone right now, and he provides the creeps in the creepy, twisty Disappearance of Alice Creed, a hostage thriller written and directed by J Blakeson in his feature debut.

Marsan (pictured above, right) plays the senior partner in a pair of kidnappers, a class-conscious ex-con who’s tightly wound but perhaps not quite as ruthless as he needs to be. Completing the three-person cast are Martin Compston (pictured above, left) as the junior kidnapper and Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) as a hostage possessed of a greater killer instinct than either of her captors.

The first 10 minutes, a mostly wordless, Rififi-like montage of preparation and execution — stealing the van, shopping for supplies at the warehouse store, soundproofing the room, bolting the bed to the floor — are best.

The intentionally claustrophobic drama that unspools from there is well acted and sufficiently tense, but the plot twists and shifting alliances feel a little too polished; they play like the writer’s conceits they are, right up to the inevitable reversal-of-fortunes ending.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed will keep your attention, but you may finishng watching this DVD thinking you’ve seen something like it before: Sleuth, with more sex and violence.