I have scratched together a living, in one way or another, as a writer for more than 50 years now. I was a free-lance writer during the early stages of the Vietnam War. I was the Southwest Division Overnight News Editor for United Press International back when UPI was a legitimate news gathering organization. Following that, I went to the Dallas Morning News where I became the first person to write about rock 'n' roll on a daily basis for a Texas metropolitan newspaper. I later became the News' entertainment editor. Following some stints with a couple of prominent PR firms, I had the extraordinary good fortune to team with two communications legends, Ken Fairchild and Lisa LeMaster, as part of one kick-ass media consulting/crisis communications team. That was followed by short stays with the City of Dallas, as its public information officer; the Dallas Northeast Chamber of Commerce where I had the good fortune to meet and work alongside some of this city's business and political titans; and editorial director for QuestCorp Media until that company went out of business. Now officially retired, concentrating on this blog.
Absence * Erin Way, Eric Mathany, Ryan Smale. Directed by Jim Loweree. Doctors are baffled when an expectant mother wakes to find her nearly-to-term pregnancy apparently disappear overnight. Police investigate the situation as a missing child, and only her husband and brother trust her version of events. What starts as a creepy, original conceit — mysterious Caesarean-section abductions during hospital stays — devolves quickly into standard talk-to-the-camera, jump-at-the-sounds, found-footage banality.
Aftershock ** Eli Roth, Andrea Osvárt, Ariel Levy. Directed by Nicolás López. A dim American tourist traveling in Chile convinces three attractive young women to accompany him and his friends to party in a coastal city, but the fun stops when a major earthquake devastates the area and they must fight for survival. There’s plenty of gore, but none of it is particularly inventive, nor does it engender any visceral or emotional reactions beyond jaded disgust.
Antiviral **½ Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Douglas Smith, Wendy Crewson, Malcolm McDowell. Directed by Brandon Cronenberg. A virus dealer makes a big mistake when he gives himself the same bug that killed a superstar. A one-joke movie — a good joke, yes, but Cronenberg’s agenda clouds the clarity that’s needed to fully deliver the punchline.
Mud *** Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepherd, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Jacob Lofland. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Two young boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love. Nichols’ much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough second feature Take Shelter feels less adventurous and unsettling but remains a well carpentered piece of work marked by some fine performances and resilient thematic fiber.
My Amityville Horror **½ Daniel Lutz. Directed by Eric Walter. In this documentary, Lutz discusses what happened in 1975 when his family was plagued by supernatural happenings at the notorious Amityville house in Long Island. Psychologists, reporters and eyewitnesses examine Daniel’s testimony. Walter has the case down cold and arrives at suitably ambiguous conclusions about terrors, both real and suggested, but he gets there through a mix of dimly lit interviews and ominous underscoring that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
Oblivion **½ Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo. Directed by Joseph Kosinski. A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself. For its first hour or so, this is a visually mesmerizing, intriguing picture that doesn’t feel like the same-old: It engages your eyes and piques your curiosity. Then, gradually, the novelty wears off, the clichés start to pile up and we’re back to Post-Apocalyptic Dystopia 101. Oscar-winners Freeman and Leo turn up in cameo roles anyone could have played. Kosinski was smart to limit their screen time, because it’s awkward to have actors with weight and charisma hanging around those who lack both.
On the Road **½ Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elizabeth Moss. Directed by Walter Salles. At the height of the Beat era, New York writer Sal Paradise, his freewheeling buddy Dean, and Dean’s wife set out on a journey of self-discovery. A dash of Tarantino might have juiced up Salles’ wrongheadedly well-mannered take on Jack Kerouac’s 1957 Beat Generation landmark. Kerouac’s semi-autobiographical novel comes to the screen looking good but feeling shallow. The film is rich with evocative period atmosphere and anchored by a trio of compellingly lived-in performances from Riley, Hedlund, and Stewart. Nevertheless, it’s another staid adaptation that misses the forest for the trees and confuses people into thinking that some novels truly are "unfilmmable."
Paradise: Love **** Directed by Ulrich Seidl. Teresa, a 50-year-old Austrian, vacations on Kenya’s sun-kissed shores looking for love among the local beach boys who survive on European "sugar mamas." She falls for Munga, but soon realizes that his false sincerity is part of the sex tourism game. Challenging, complex and frequently ugly, this is a ruthless exploration of how unlike our everyday selves we can behave when we’re "on holiday," and how much that illuminates who we really are.
The Place Beyond the Pines **½ Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta. Directed by Derek Cianfrance. A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks as a way to provide for his lover and their newborn child, a decision that puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective. It’s very much a film about men, their yearnings and discontents, and about the way sins tumble down from one generation to the next. It’s a bank-robber movie, too, as well as a drama about the pressures teenagers face from parents and peers. You can feel Cianfrance biting off more and more until his mouth is too full to chew.
The Sapphires *** Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Sharri Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Eka Darville. Directed by Wayne Blair. In 1968, four young, talented Australian Aboriginal girls learn about love, friendship and war when their all girl group The Sapphires entertain U.S. troops in Vietnam. First-time director Blair and screenwriters Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, adapting Briggs’ stage play, don’t shy away from the era’s social complexities, but they keep their eye on the ball, which in this case is the sweet pull of soul tune harmony.
Storm Surfers **½ Tom Carroll, Ross-Clarke Jones, Ben Matson, Toni Collette. Directed by Justin McMillan, Christopher Nelius. Now in their 40s, surfing legends Clarke-Jones and Carroll team with meteorologist and surf forecaster Matson to track down and conquer the biggest, most dangerous waves in Australia. Collette narrates. The real star is the ocean itself, which is so stunning in its furious majesty that we fully understand every risk these guys are willing to take.
The Story of Luke **½ Lou Taylor Pucci, Seth Green, Cary Elwes, Kristin Bauer. Directed by Alonso Mayo. Luke is an autistic 25-year-old who lives with his grandparents until his grandmother dies. Though the world expects little from him, he resolves to meet the challenge of finding a job and looking after himself. When it works, the film serves as a modest reminder that the challenges of autism may sometimes be no more daunting or fearsome than those that face anyone in search of an independent life.
To the Wonder **½ Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem. Directed by Terrence Malick. Soon after returning to his native Oklahoma with a beautiful woman he met in Paris, a man finds himself drifting toward an old friend. Meanwhile, the woman he brought back with him has unfinished business with her first husband. The film is distinctly lacking in oomph and, without an emotional connection, without anything interesting happening on the screen, the beauty can only take you so far before the endeavor falls like a house of cards.
West of Memphis **** Directed by Amy Berg. An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three. Although it’s the fourth documentary about the West Memphis Three, this one doesn’t feel superfluous. This bizarre case rates at least 18 documentaries — one for each year Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley spent in prison for murders they clearly didn’t commit.