Monday, December 30, 2013

This Year's 25 Best DVD Releases

1. Zero Dark Thirty ***** Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Chris Pratt. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret across the globe, devotes itself to a single goal: to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden. Unlike too many films these days, Zero Dark Thirty dares to embrace complexity. And that makes it not just state-of-the-art entertainment, but a great film. One reason screenwriter Mark Boal makes such a potent combination with Bigelow is that her directing style moves us right along. She is so good with both action and creating a convincing look and feel for the film that the time it takes to get up to speed with the complicated plot does not feel like a problem.

2. Before Midnight ***** Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. Directed by Richard Linklater. This second sequel to the romantic drama Before Sunrise checks in with multinational lovers Jesse and Celine nine years after they reunited. Living in Greece, the couple struggles with emotions relating to parenthood, middle age and faded romance. Just as swoon-worthy, and essential, as its predecessors, Before Midnight reveals the full scope of Linklater’s ambition. This is not just another stellar follow-up, but the latest entry in what’s shaping up to be a grand experiment — the earnest attempt to depict the life of a relationship onscreen, decade by increasingly tumultuous decade. In the process of justifying its own existence, Before Midnight redeems the very notion of sequels. It surpasses the two previous films in this trilogy in terms of its intelligence, narrative design, and vivacity. It’s a grand accomplishment, and I feel greedy about wanting to see this film series continue. Delpy and Hawke, who’ve invested this trilogy with the fine shadings of life lived, do extraordinary things with small moments.

3. The Master ***** Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Freddie, a volatile, heavy-drinking veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, finds some semblance of a family when he stumbles onto the ship of Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a new "religion" he forms after World War II. Two things stand out: the extraordinary command of cinematic technique, which alone is nearly enough to keep a connoisseur on the edge of his seat the entire time, and the tremendous portrayals by Phoenix and Hoffman of two entirely antithetical men. The Master is not a schematic attack on a particular religion. It is a brilliantly conceived and powerfully realized work of art, with complex characters, exquisite images and ambiguously big ideas.

4. Django Unchained ***** Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Accompanied by a German bounty hunter, a freed slave named Django travels across America to free his wife from a sadistic plantation owner. The film doesn't play it safe, so neither will I. Instead, I'll say that it finds Tarantino perched improbably but securely on the top of a production that's wildly extravagant, ferociously violent, ludicrously lurid and outrageously entertaining, yet also, remarkably, very much about the pernicious lunacy of racism and, yes, slavery's singular horrors. It also has the pure, almost meaningless excitement which I found sorely lacking in Tarantino's previous film, Inglourious Basterds, with its misfiring spaghetti-Nazi trope and boring plot.

5. Silver Linings Playbook ***** Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles. Directed by David O. Russell. After a four-year stay in a psychiatric institution, former teacher Pat Peoples has no choice but to move back in with his mother. While he's trying in vain to reunite with his wife, Pat meets another woman fated to change his life. Silver Linings Playbook is rich in life's complications. It will make you laugh, but don't expect it to fit in any snug genre pigeonhole. Dramatic, emotional, even heartbreaking, as well as wickedly funny, it has the gift of going its own way, a complete success from a singular talent. For all its high-flying zaniness the movie has the sting of life, and its humor feels dredged up from the same dark, boggy place from which Samuel Beckett extracted his yuks.

6. Drinking Buddies ***** Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston. Directed by Joe Swanberg. Luke and Kate, workmates at a small Chicago brewery, are romantically involved with others but also the best of friends — on and off the clock. Things get complicated, however, when the couples spend a weekend together at a lakeside retreat. With dexterity and care, Swanberg illuminates our muddled perceptions of our own relationships. He fixates on the minutiae of hanging out, the stuff of little loves and lies, the feints and thrusts we make in sorting matters of head and heart. This nimble, knowing and altogether excellent new film, refuses to dance to the usual tune.

7. Argo ****½ Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber. Directed by Ben Affleck. In 1979, when Iranian militants seize the American embassy, six Americans slip into the Canadian embassy for protection, prompting the CIA to concoct an elaborate plot to rescue them by pretending that they are filmmakers rather than diplomats. Argo is a triumph. It has tension, sincerity, mystery, artistic responsibility, entertainment value, technical expertise, a narrative arc and a thrilling respect for the tradition of how to tell a story with minimum frills and maximum impact. Affleck easily orchestrates this complex film with 120 speaking parts as it moves from inside-the-Beltway espionage thriller to inside Hollywood dark comedy to gripping international hostage drama, all without missing a step.

8. Lincoln ****½ Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, Jackie Earle Haley. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Focuses on the 16th President's tumultuous final months in office. In a nation divided by war and the strong winds of change, Lincoln pursues a course of action designed to end the war, unite the country and abolish slavery. Spielberg has never made a more sophisticated and less sentimental picture. He and writer Tony Kushner craft it like a historical thriller. It blends cinematic Americana with something grubbier and more interesting than Americana, and it does not look, act or behave like the usual perception of a Spielberg epic. It is smaller and quieter than that. The experience of watching Day-Lewis in this role is nothing less than thrilling. This is Lincoln. No need for a time machine, there he is.

9. Barbara ****½ Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock. Directed by Christian Petzold. A doctor working in 1980s East Germany finds herself banished to a small country hospital. Petzold handles personal, formal, and political concerns in such perfect balance, it's difficult, and not especially desirable, to separate one from the next. The movie is dense but never feels it, assembled with easy mastery and engrossing throughout. It's one terrific film, as smart, thoughtful and emotionally involving as just about anything that's out there.

10. Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters ****½ Directed by Ben Shapiro. This offbeat portrait of portrait artist Crewdson captures his oddly elaborate creative process while sharing details of his fascinating past. It is a rare thing to witness the creative process. But in this excellent documentary, Shapiro gives us fly-on-the-wall access over a 10-year period to an acclaimed artist as he envisions, designs and executes his surreal commentary on small-town American life in the form of an epic photo installation, Beneath the Roses. Crewdson and others (including Russell Banks and Laurie Simmons) speak eloquently about his project, but it's the on-set agonies — to achieve the fleeting expression here, dark kiss of light there, and the peculiar relief they bring our maestro — that fascinate.

11. Frances Ha ****½ Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Determined to make it as a modern dancer in New York, Frances pursues her unlikely goal with more enthusiasm than natural talent. The rest of the time, she and her sardonic best friend, Sophie, put off growing up for as long as they can. The writing is so musical, so attuned to human frailty and aspiration, that I defy anyone to watch the movie without smiling — with amusement one minute, rueful recognition the next, but probably always with some measure of simple, undiluted delight.

12. Room 237 ****½ Directed by Rodney Ascher. A documentary that explores the various theories about hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick's horror film The Shining. Unique and at times profound, it's a reminder of how much Kubrick left for us to appreciate in his work, and how the greatest films always leave something more to be discovered with each viewing.

13. Something in the Air ****½ Directed by Olivier Assayas. Growing up in the wake of France's civil crisis of May 1968, a teenager and his friends are determined to sustain the partisan passions of that era. This is a beautifully crafted work and an acute evocation of its period both in look and attitude, and it’s no less deeply absorbing for being somewhat muted in tone.

14. Neighboring Sounds ****½ Directed by Kleber Mendoca Filho. A history of violence and oppression threatens to engulf the residents of an affluent seaside community. With his sound designer, Pablo Lamar, Filho has created the aural landscape of a horror movie. And, for much of its running time, a thriller without a plot. Filho’s mastery of pacing, theme and stylistic eccentricity throughout is so assured as to be breathtaking.

15. An Overssimplification of Her Beauty ****½ Directed by Terence Nance. When the comely and intriguing Namik stands him up for a date, filmmaker Terence documents his confusion in a short film that he later shows to her. When Namik isn’t impressed, Terence decide to turn the movie into a full exploration of his feelings. What saves the film — and grandly — is Nance’s wildly ambitious visual imagination. Teetering somewhere between film school precocity and impressively assured audaciousness, it’s almost hypnotic in its style and genre promiscuity.

16. Rust and Bone ****½ Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts. Directed by Jacques Audiard. Put in charge of his young son, Ali leaves Belgium for Antibes to live with his sister and her husband as a family. Ali's bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stephanie suffers a horrible accident. The narrative at the heart of Rust and Bone is a vehicle for sentiment and over-the-top histrionics if ever there was one, but Audiard and his two stars deliver the exact opposite: a film thrillingly raw and essential, life-affirming, sublime.

17. Wreck-It Ralph ****½ Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Ed O’Neill, Dennis Haysbert. Directed by Rich Moore. Wreck-It Ralph longs to be the good guy instead of the villain in an old-school video game. He sees his chance and sneaks into the arcade's newest game, a flashy first-person shooter. But in doing so, he unleashes a deadly enemy. Manages to be touching as well as silly, thrilling and just a bit exhausting. The secret to its success is a genuine enthusiasm for the creative potential of games, a willingness to take them seriously without descending into nerdy pomposity.

18. The Gatekeepers ****½ Directed by Droh Moreh. A documentary featuring interviews with all surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets. The interviewees have different personalities that suggest varying styles of leadership, but what's remarkable about the film is how they speak in one voice about the moral complexities of their former jobs and their extreme pessimism about the future. A documentary potent enough to alter how you see the world.

19. This is Not a Film ****½ Directed by Jafat Panahi. When the Iranian government banned Panahi from making a film for 20 years, he filmed this documentary that covers a day in his life. This is a compelling personal document, a quietly passionate statement of artistic intent, and an uncompromising testament to Panahi’s belief in cinema. Against all odds, an unquenchable artist has made yet another piece of powerful art.

20. The Kid With a Bike ****½ Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne. Abandoned by his father, a young boy is left in a state-run youth farm. In a random act of kindness, the town hairdresser agrees to foster him on weekends. A quietly rapturous film about love and redemption. It makes a powerful statement about the plight of unwanted children. But it also incorporates elements of melodrama, film noir, and even the fairy tale that engage our empathy and confirm the great compassion of the filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

21. Blackfish ****½ Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. A documentary that examines the life of performing killer whale Tilikum — who has caused the deaths of several people while in captivity — and questions the safety and humaneness of confining these creatures. Cowperthwaite builds a portrait of an intelligent but profoundly traumatized animal who was taken from his family in the North Atlantic as an infant, and has been driven to anger, resentment and perhaps psychosis after spending his life in a series of concrete swimming pools.

22. No ****½ Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Néstor Cantillana, Luis Gnecco. Directed by Pablo Larrain. An advertising executive comes up with a campaign to defeat military dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile’s 1988 referendum. Even if No is not the whole truth — and no film is — its pungent dialogue and involving characters tell a delicious and very pertinent tale. And the messages it delivers, its thoughts on the workings of democracy and the intricacies of personality, are just as valuable and entertaining — maybe even more so. A troubling, exhilarating and ingeniously realized film that’s part stirring political drama and part devilish media satire. And it’s that rare political satire that can sound the depths of irony as No does and still end on a note of ambivalent hope.

23. In the Family ****½ Sebastian Banes, Patrick Wang, Trevor St. John. Directed by Patrick Wang. When his domestic partner dies in a car accident, a man learns that their son has been willed to his partner’s sister. Deliberate and marked by uncommon grace, In The Family manages to feel politically and culturally acute without ever resorting to melodrama, or having to wave banners for issues or causes, except perhaps in its quiet way for a renewed humanism in movies and a return to stories about everyday lives.

24. Searching for Sugar Man ****½ Directed by Malik Bendjelloul. Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock 'n' roller, Rodriguez. All music documentaries are not created equal. Yes, some are formulaic. But some are beautiful, some are singular, some are marvels of storytelling. And some, like Searching for Sugar Man, are all three.

25. Upstream Color ****½ Amy Seimetz, Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins, Frank Mosley. Directed by Shane Carruth. A woman is abducted and hypnotized with material harvested from a flower. When she falls for a man, the two realize they have been subjected to the same process. Together, they search for safety as they struggle to reassemble their wrecked lives. It’s all a neat trick. Or exercise. Or brain-teaser. Whatever you want to call it, Upstream Color is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. But once you have seen it, once isn’t going to be enough. A romance, a thriller, and a science-fiction drama, it tantalizes you with an open-ended narrative about overcoming personal loss. It’s lush, rhythmic, and deeply sensual, a film of exceptional beauty.

This Week’s DVD Releases

Don Jon ***½ Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore. Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A New Jersey guy dedicated to his family, friends, and church, develops unrealistic expectations from watching porn and works to find happiness and intimacy with his potential true love. A deceptively sincere movie about masculinity and its discontents that Gordon-Levitt, making a fine feature directing debut, shapes into a story about a young man's moral education.

Hell Baby **½ Rob Corddry, Leslie Bibb, Keegan Michael Key. Directed by Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon. An expectant couple who moves into the most haunted house in New Orleans call upon the services of the Vatican's elite exorcism team to save them from a demonic baby. Given Garant and Lennon’s background on The State and Reno 911, their scattershot approach as filmmakers isn’t especially surprising; for every oddly specific Shakespeare reference or detour to the local po-boy joint, there’s an ongoing parade of puke and an awful rubber suit with which to contend.

Last Love * Michael Caine, Clemence Poesy. Directed by Sandra Nettelbeck. A look at the life-changing connection between a retired and widowed American philosophy professor and a young Parisian woman. Scene after scene is defined by blunt exposition and gooey maxims, not to mention cornball visual metaphors.

CBGB ½* Alan Rickman. Directed by Randall Miller. A look at the New York City punk-rock scene and the venerable titular nightclub. The movie’s biggest problem is that it's taken such electrifying source material and done absolutely zilch with it.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

End of the Year Look at the Best Picture Race

A lot of the pretenders have been eliminated and conventional wisdom (whoever that is) is saying that nine pictures will be nominated again for the top Oscar award and that the race is between three of them -- 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and American Hustle.

So, if there are nine nominees, these are the pictures I see right now filling those slots:

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Inside Llewyn Davis
Saving Mr. Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy (un)Homeless Holidays from Phoenix

I have no idea when the systematic racism in Dallas was instituted as policy. It might have been as early as the 19th Century. Like most racist acts, there is no paper trail, although traces can be found here and there.

There are documents revealing that blacks – even as late as the 1950s – were restricted from purchasing homes unless they were in unprotected floodplains such as Rochester Park.

But regardless of how it was done, Dallas was divided between north and south – blacks restricted to a bleak existence south of the city, whites prospering in the northern half. Taking a drive from the southern border of Dallas to the northern one on old Highway 75 was a revelatory experience – the stark contrast between north and south was an ugly boil on the butt of the city.

And to a large extent, that boil remains today.

Which is the major reason Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings launched his "Grow South" campaign. I’m not sure what that is, exactly, what its specific goals are. Take a peak at the City’s Web site and you’ll find nary a mention of "Grow South," so I guess this is some kind of clue as to how seriously the City feels about this concept. From where I sit, it’s nothing more than an attempt to throw a couple of bones to the folks south of I-30, which will do more to appease the collective consciences of the North Siders than to appreciably help the economic conditions in the South.

Besides, at what point in a campaign like this can you declare victory? Or do city officials simply at same moment transform City Hall Plaza into a simulated deck of air aircraft carrier and hang a "Mission Accomplished" banner across the north face of the building?

Contrast this "Grow South" shadow to a program undertaken in Phoenix that had its goal actually stated in its mission statement – to eradicate chronic veteran homelessness.

I’m not going into the whole story of what Phoenix has accomplished because you can see it for yourself right here. The reason I’m bringing this up is because, as this story says, the cities of Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and Washington are following the Phoenix model and are also on the verge of eradicating veteran homelessness.

Dallas, of course, is not mentioned and that’s another reason I feel ashamed for the city in which I reside. This is an idea that works. Not only that, it’s one that is noble – making sure that those who served in the American military to protect us can, at the very least, have a roof over the heads to show our appreciation for their sacrifices on our behalf. And, obviously it is winnable. It is one after which you can stand on the hilltops and declare victory in no uncertain terms. Absolutely no one can dispute that victory.

If I were Mayor Rawlings, who, by the way, was once this city’s "Homeless Czar," I would be preparing to instruct my new incoming city manager to put together a team that could get to Phoenix immediately and return with the roadmap for that’s city success in this ambitious undertaking. Then I would instruct city staff find a way to overlay that map on the City of Dallas and set a date for when this city, too, will finally do something honorable for a segment of its population by ending chronic veteran homelessness.

Monday, December 23, 2013

This Week’s DVD Releases

Una Noche ***½ Directed by Lucy Malloy. After Cuban teenager Raul is accused of assault, he and his best friend decide to flee the country and make the 90-mile journey to the United States. Mulloy’s only other directing credit is for the documentary short This Morning. She brings a documentarian’s objective eye to Una Noche, yet the actors — non-professionals — convey exactly the emotions she is looking for.

More Than Honey *** Directed by Markus Imhoof. An in-depth look at honeybee colonies in California, Switzerland, China and Australia. Though overloaded with narration, Honey triumphs visually, with stunning shots of bees in flight, tracked in slow motion, Winged Migration-style, by who-knows-what technical wizardry.

Insidious Chapter 2 ½* Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey. Directed by James Wan. Time has passed for Renai and Josh Lambert, but they are still haunted by the evil spirits that almost stole the body of their son, Dalton. While Renai tries to accept her son’s paranormal abilities, Josh must confront his own horrifying childhood. A mess from start to finish — though, judging by the ending, this story won’t be over any time soon — Insidious: Chapter 2 is the kind of lazy, halfhearted product that gives scary movies a bad name.

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

Last week's in parenthesis

1.  Wisconsin 12-0 (1)
2.  Arizona 12-0 (2)
3.  Oklahoma State 11-1 (5)
4.  Villanova 11-0 (6)
5.  Ohio State 12-0 (3)
6.  Syracuse 11-0 (4)
7.  Iowa State 9-0 (7)
8.  Oregon 11-0 (9)
9.  Wichita State 12-0 (8)
10. Michigan State 10-1 (13)
11. Kansas 8-3 (12)
12. Louisville 11-1 (17)
13. Massachusetts 10-1 (11)
14. Florida 9-2 (23)
15. Iowa 11-2 (19)
16. Pittsburgh 11-1 (14)
17. Duke 9-2 (NR)
18. Colorado 10-2 (21)
19. St. Mary's, Calif. 9-1 (15)
20. Gonzaga 10-2 (10)
21. Memphis 8-2 (20)
22. Kentucky 9-3 (NR)
23. Connecticut 10-1 (16)
24. Baylor 10-1 (22)
25. North Carolina 8-3 (18)
Dropped out: Missouri, UCLA

Monday, December 16, 2013

This Week's DVD Releases

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints *** Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster. Directed by David Lowery. The tale of an outlaw who escapes from prison and sets out across the Texas hills to reunite with his wife and the daughter he has never met. Lowery has a lyrical style of storytelling that is delicate and subtle yet suffused with emotion and atmosphere. It’s gentle and pointed at the same time. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints wafts over you like a dream, leaving behind a lovely, melancholy trace that hurts.

Prisoners **½ Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. When Keller Dover’s daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads. For all its pretensions and intermittent power, this is essentially high-grade claptrap. At its best, it dwells on the ways the characters affected by the case are held mentally captive — by conviction, compulsion, procedure, skewed beliefs, rage, and grief — and how each character’s blind spot and/or maniacal focus furthers or frustrates the search for the girls.

The Family **½ Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones. Directed by Luc Besson. The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France, under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging. The movie has holes galore. It has abrupt tonal shifts, an incoherent back story and abandoned subplots. It doesn’t even try for basic credibility. But buoyed by hot performances, it sustains a zapping electrical energy.

Elysium **½ Matt Damon, Jodie Foster. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. In the year 2154, the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth. A man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds. Elysium could be more clever as it goes about its business. This is smart sci-fi, but it’s not as smart as it could have been — or as many District 9 fans like me were probably hoping it would be.

Kick-Ass 2 ** Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey, Donald Faison, John Leguizamo, Morris Chestnut. Directed by Jeff Wadlow. The costumed high-school hero Kick-Ass joins with a group of normal citizens who have been inspired to fight crime in costume. A messy, confused, over-the-top mixture of brutality and sick comedy, puckishness and ugliness, self-awareness and tone-deafness.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters ** Directed by Thor Freudenthal. In order to restore their dying safe haven, the son of Poseidon and his friends embark on a quest to the Sea of Monsters to find the mythical Golden Fleece while trying to stop an ancient evil from rising. Despite the usual end-of-world crisis and Mount Olympus MVP characters in this Harry Potter wannabe, there’s no sense that anything’s truly at stake; rather, it feels as if the filmmakers are coasting on the fumes of teen-angst fantasy and making up their fairy-tale rules (Cyclopes are fireproof!) as they go along.

The Lone Ranger ** Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice. It’s all too much and not enough — a succession of disparate, can-you-top-this episodes inelegantly piling up like skidding cars on a freeway. And that’s not even taking into account the action scenes. Lord, those action scenes: Monotonous, loud and relentless, they’re a punishing example of the self-satisfied, digitally augmented ephemera that typifies modern Hollywood moviemaking, and House Bruckheimer in particular.

Ghost Team One ** Carlos Santos, J.R. Villareal, Fernanda Romero, Tony Cavalero, Meghan Falcone, James Babson. Directed by Ben Peyser, Scott Rutherford. Two roommates deathly afraid of ghosts both fall in love with a girl who believes their home is haunted. An aggressively obnoxious tone undermines a decent concept and appealing cast.

One Direction: This Is Us * Directed by Morgan Spurlock. The film follows the multiplatinum group One Direction as they prepare for their 2013 world tour. The movie is aimless, seemingly deceptive and spreads a poor message: that it’s OK to act extremely immature, as long as you have millions of blind followers who think it’s cute.

My Top 25 College Basketball Teams

1.  Wisconsin 12-0
2.  Arizona 11-0
3.  Ohio State 10-0
4.  Syracuse 10-0
5.  Oklahoma State 9-1
6.  Villanova 10-0
7.  Iowa State 8-0
8.  Wichita State 10-0
9.  Oregon 9-0
10. Gonzaga 10-1
11. Massachusetts 9-0
12. Kansas 7-3
13. Michigan State 8-1
14. Pittsburgh 10-0
15. St. Mary's, Calif. 8-0
16. Connecticut 9-0
17. Louisville 9-1
18. North Carolina 7-2
19. Iowa 10-2
20. Memphis 7-1
21. Colorado 10-1
22. Baylor 8-1
23. Florida 7-2
24. UCLA 9-1
25. Missouri 10-0

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Farewell to an acting legend

Most people, when they hear the name Peter O'Toole, immediately associate that name with Lawrence of Arabia. I guess I do as well, but Lawrence is not my favorite O'Toole film. That distinction is shared by not one, but three films, one he made in the mid-1970s (The Ruling Class) and the other two he made in the early 1980s (The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year). And my all-time favorite O'Toole moment is when, in Year, her utters one of the most famous lines in cinema history: "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star." My second favorite is the scene in Ruling Class when he's telling the patrons of a British pub how bones snap when a person is hanged and he breaks into the song Dry Bones.

He was, a movie star of the highest order who was also one of the finest actors ever captured on film.

He was nominated for an Oscar eight times, but never won (although he was awarded an honorary one in 2003). Although I thought he should have won for Lawrence (you can count on one hand the number of scenes in that epic adventure that he isn't in), but I can't raise that much of a stink that Gregory Peck beat him out for the much-loved To Kill a Mockingbird. I grumbled a little louder when Rex Harrison won in 1964, the year O'Toole was nominated for Becket (it was even a bigger crime that O'Toole's co-star in that film, Richard Burton didn't win). But I was incensed when O'Toole was nominated for The Lion in Winter and Cliff Robertson (c'mon, Cliff effing Robertson?) took home the trophy. In true O'Toole style, I went out and got raging drunk with a couple of writing buddies the night of that travesty.

O'Toole's early education came in Catholic schools in the English city of Leeds. Writing of that time, he said “I used to be scared stiff of the nuns: their whole denial of womanhood – the black dresses and the shaving of the hair – was so horrible, so terrifying. Of course, that's all been stopped. They're sipping gin and tonic in the Dublin pubs now, and a couple of them flashed their pretty ankles at me just the other day." You just gotta love the guy.

O'Toole later won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he was in the same class with Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford. He was regarded as a superb Shakespearean actor on the English stage. He made his first appearance on British television in 1954 and in film in 1959 with a small part in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England. But then came Lawrence (1962), a part he played after Marlon Brando and Albert Finney turned it down. His performance in Lawrence was ranked No. 1 in Premiere magazine's listing of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time,

O'Toole officially retired from acting in July, 2012 and he died today in a London hospital. But the performances he leaves behind reinforces the reason why anyone who cares a whit about great acting must own a DVD player and, at least, eight O'Toole titles. I'm not going to tell you which ones they should be. You won't go wrong with any of them.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

One year later

It's been a year and I, for one, still have not recovered emotionally from the tragedy at Sandy Hook. But, why, I keep asking myself, do we as a nation continue to refuse to do anything to protect our children, to prevent them from dying so young at the hands of deranged mass murderers.

All those emotional feelings came flooding back when, two days ago, I saw an interview with the parents of one of the children killed a year ago today. Their son was 7. They had another son, 10, who also went to Sandy Hook who survived. They said the hardest moment of all came when they had to tell the 10-year-old that his little brother was dead. They said he looked at them through tear-filled eyes and cried out: "Mom, dad, you promised you would protect us."

We are a better people than this. We are a better nation than this. We need to stand our ground and do whatever we can to stop this needless violence, this loss of life, particularly of defenseless children.

Here's a staggering statistic: 32,833 Americans have been killed by guns since the Sandy Hook massacre one year ago today.

Isn't it time we stopped? Isn't it time we said enough is enough?

Monday, December 9, 2013

This Week’s DVD Releases

Adore * Naomi Watts, Robin Wright. Directed by Anne Fontaine. A pair of childhood friends and neighbors fall for each other’s sons. Everything is spelled out literally and at a stultifying pace, in a story that might have worked onscreen as either heightened melodrama or farcical comedy. Instead Fontaine, who is not exactly blessed with a light touch, opts for misplaced sincerity.

The Angels’ Share **½ Directed by Ken Loach. After avoiding jail, Robbie vows to turn his life around for his newborn son. He has a talent for discerning fine whiskeys, and he and his community service cohorts hatch a plan to lift a few expensive bottles to buy themselves a better future. There might be a pretty good film lurking in this latest dramedy from the veteran Scottish directing-writing team of Loach and Paul Laverty. I use the conditional because at least half the dialogue is delivered in a Glaswegian Scots so thick, it might as well have been Urdu.

Battle of the Year (no stars) Directed by Benson Lee. A break dance contest attracts all the best teams from around the world, but the Americans haven’t won in 15 years. Dante enlists Blake to assemble a team of the best dancers and bring the trophy back to America. The miracle of this 3-D dance film is how it can be so relentlessly boring while there is so much frenetic activity on screen.

Despicable Me 2 **½ Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, Steve Coogan. Directed by Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud. Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal. This loony ‘toon is dizzy with wonderments, especially in 3-D. The spindly-limbed character design owes more to Charles Addams’ family than to Walt Disney’s kingdom, while the story and settings evoke James Bond on laughing gas.

Fast & Furious 6 *** Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson. Directed by Justin Lin. Hobbs has Dom and Brian reassemble their crew in order to take down a mastermind who commands an organization of mercenary drivers across 12 countries in return for full pardons for them all. What really sets this installment apart is the blinding speed with which it shifts between over-the-top action, that speedometer inching toward 800 mph at times, and soap opera emotions that bring everything to a screeching halt. It’s enough to give you whiplash in a good way.

The Hunt **½ Mads Mikkelsen. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. A teacher lives a lonely life, all the while struggling over his son’s custody. His life slowly gets better as he finds love and receives good news from his son, but his new luck is brutally shattered by an innocent little lie. The Hunt doesn’t know where to stop. It is undermined with a short, unsatisfying epilogue whose shocking final moment isn’t enough to justify its inclusion.

Jayne Mansfield’s Car **½ Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick, Ray Stevenson, Katherine LaNasa, Frances O’Connor, Shawnee Smith, Ron White. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton. The death of a clan’s estranged wife and mother brings together two very different families in 1969 Alabama. Characters scream, throw glasses, screw, and strip nude for the self-gratifying viewing pleasure of others, but Jayne Mansfield’s Car never musters up even the faintest trace of Tennessee Williams-style hothouse drama.

Man of Tai Chi **½ Keanu Reeves, Tiger Chen. Directed by Keanu Reeves. A young martial artist’s unparalleled Tai Chi skills land him in a highly lucrative underworld fight club. A modestly entertaining martial arts melodrama with impressively staged fight sequences that help compensate for a stale plot and some less-than-stellar acting.

Sightseers **½ Alice Lowe, Eileen Davies, Jonathan Aris, Kenneth Hadley, Monica Dolan, Richard Lumsden Steve Oram, Tony Way. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Chris wants to show girlfriend Tina his world, but events soon conspire against the couple and their dream caravan holiday takes a very wrong turn. It’s neither grounded enough to be genuinely horrifying nor over the top enough to be nastily fun.

Touchy Feely ** Rosemary DeWitt, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston, Scoot McNairy, Ellen Page, Josh Pais. Directed by Lynn Shelton. A massage therapist is unable to do her job when stricken with a mysterious and sudden aversion to bodily contact, while, her uptight brother’s floundering dental practice receives new life when clients seek out his healing touch. Shelton seems so preoccupied with making Touchy Feely feel natural and real that she’s forgotten to add any incident.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

My Top 25 College Football Teams

This will be my last ranking list until after the BCS Championship game, Jan. 6. Last week's rank in parenthesis.
1.  Florida State 13-0 (1)
2.  Alabama 11-1 (2)
3.  Auburn 12-1 (6)
4.  Stanford 11-2 (7)
5.  Baylor 11-1 (9)
6.  Ohio State 12-1 (3)
7.  Michigan State 12-1 (12)
8.  Missouri 11-2 (4)
9.  Arizona State 10-3 (5)
10. Oregon 10-2 (10)
11. South Carolina 10-2 (11)
12. Oklahoma State 10-2 (8)
13. Clemson 10-2 (13)
14. Oklahoma 10-2 (17)
15. UCLA 9-3 (15)
16. LSU 9-3 (16)
17. Wisconsin 9-3 (14)
18. Georgia 8-4 (18)
19. Louisville 11-1 (23)
20. Texas A&M 8-4 (20)
21. Washington 8-4 (19)
22. Southern California 9-4 (21)
23. UCF 11-1 (24)
24. Notre Dame 8-4 (25)
25. Northern Illinois 12-1 (22)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Brown’s last stand?

As the chances continue to fade that Texas will defeat Baylor this afternoon, the volume rises on the talk that this will be Mack Brown’s final game as the Longhorns head coach. Much of what is reinforcing that talk is that, despite the fact the Horns have registered another 8-win season, and despite the fact they went into this game contending for the Big 12 title when most preseason prognosticators picked them to finish no higher than fourth in the league, the UT administration has just hired a new athletic director and did so without ever consulting Brown about the choice.

I don’t know whether an administration should contact a football coach concerning the hiring of an AD. Perhaps as a courtesy, but certainly not because the coach should have any kind of veto or even approval power.

If Brown is gone it’s because of his performance. And what has Brown’s performance been? Well, he’s in his 15th season as head coach. He’s recorded at least eight wins in 14 of those 15 years. In the previous 15 years before Brown, Texas had eight wins in a season only six times. And in the first 15 years of the legendary Darrell Royal’s coaching career at Texas, he had nine eight-win seasons, five fewer than Brown. (In his entire 20-year career at Texas, Royal had 12 seasons of eight wins or more.) Brown’s winning percentage at Texas is also slightly better than Royal’s – .775 to .763. On those numbers alone, it could be argued that Brown is the best coach in Texas’ history.

What are the major functions of a head coach at the college level? In my opinion, there are two: recruiting and then turning those recruits over to able assistant coaches. In that first function, there are few, if any, better than Brown. His recruiting classes are consistently named the best or near the best in the nation every single year. However, when it comes to Texas’ assistant coaches, it is there I have a definite problem. It seems to me Brown favors loyalty over ability when it comes to hiring his coaching staff. I can not name one single assistant coach on the Texas staff that would be considered a serious candidate for a head coaching position at any other major college program.

Why is Major Applewhite Texas’ offensive coordinator? Because he was an outstanding performer for Brown between 1998 and 2001. Yes, he was the youngest offensive coordinator in the country when Nick Saban named him to that position in 2007, but you didn’t hear Saban object too loudly when Applewhite left. Gregg Davis, to me Brown’s best offensive coordinator, was with Brown at Tulane and then North Carolina before coming with him to Texas. I could go on and on, but I won’t.

Yes, head coaches do make major in-game decisions such as whether to go for one or two points after a touchdown or whether to punt or go for it on fourth down. I don’t know if anyone could find major problems with Brown in those areas.

So why all this talk about Mack Brown’s future? Frankly, it depends on who is doing to the talking. If it’s just your everyday fervent Longhorn fanatic, then no one is really listening. However, if it’s the folks with the deep pockets, than the conversation takes on a far more serious tone.

But wherever it’s coming from, I just can’t see new AD Steve Patterson firing Brown – not after another eight-win season (especially one that featured a win over Oklahoma) and an upcoming bowl appearance.

If Patterson really desires to name his own man as head coach, the proper thing to do would be to reward Brown with a promotion to assistant athletic director.

Then Patterson faces a crucial decision early in his tenure and does he want to make this kind of make-it or break-it decision at this time? If he makes the wrong one, he won’t be around at Texas as long as Brown has been. All the talk I’ve heard about possible Brown successors have centered on Saban, Jumbo Fisher at Florida State or Gus Malzahn at Auburn. Frankly, I can’t see Saban ever leaving Alabama and Malzahn just agreed to a 10-year extension on his contract, and I believe he will honor at least two or three of them. As for Fisher, why would he come to the Big 12 when he’s in a position to dominate the Atlantic Coast Conference for as long as he remains at Florida State?

My top two candidates would be David Shaw of Stanford and Dave Clawson of Bowling Green.

Well, Texas just lost to Baylor and, yes, it appeared the Longhorn defense quit after Case McCoy threw that last interception. So the voices to get rid of Brown might get louder. All I’m saying is: Be very, very careful what you wish for.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A look at the greatest leader of the last half of the 20th Century

This week's best football games

There's a good number of college football games, including some that will decide who plays for the national championship, on the bill of fare for this final weekend of major college action. As a public service for all fans of the game, I have offered this ranking of the best games of the weekend, along with the time they will be played and the local channel on which they will be televised.

For those with the NFL Package on your satellite or cable TV package, I have provided the same service for this weekend's NFL games as well.

1.  Stanford at Arizona State, 6:45 p.m., ESPN
2.  Auburn vs. Missouri, 3 p.m., Channel 11
3.  Michigan State vs. Ohio State, 7 p.m., Channel 4
4.  Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, 11 a.m., Channel 8
5.  Texas at Baylor, 2:30 p.m., Channel 4
6.  Duke vs. Florida State, 7 p.m., Channel 8

Tier 1 Games
1.  Seattle at San Francisco
2. Carolina at New Orleans (Sunday night)
Tier 2 Games
3.  Dallas at Chicago (Monday night)
4.  Detroit at Philadelphia
Tier 3 Games
5.  St. Louis at Arizona
6.  Miami at Pittsburgh
7.  Tennessee at Denver
8.  NY Giants at San Diego
9.  Kansas City at Washington'
10. Indianapolis at Cincinnati
Tier 4 Games
11. Buffalo at Tampa Bay
12. Minnesota at Baltimore
13. Oakland at NY Jets
Off-the-grid Games
14. Atlanta at Green Bay (no Aaron Rogers)
15. Cleveland at New England (can anyone name the Browns' starting quarterback?)

Monday, December 2, 2013

This Week’s DVD Releases

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane **½ (This movie was filmed in 2006, but finally released in theaters six weeks ago.) until Amber Heard, Michael Welch, Whitney Able, Edwin Hodge, Aaron Himelstein, Luke Grimes, Melissa Price, Adam Powell, Peyton Hayslip, Brooke Bloom, Robert Earl Keen, Anson Mount. Directed by Jonathan Levine. A group of high-schoolers invite Mandy Lane, a good girl who became quite hot over the summer, to a weekend party on a secluded ranch. While the festivities rage on, the number of revelers begins to drop quite mysteriously. Levine shows some of the promise that would serve him so well later, but beyond an intriguing look and an initial attempt to put a new spin on the teen-horror genre, Mandy Lane winds up being pretty conventional.

Drinking Buddies ***** Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston. Directed by Joe Swanberg. Luke and Kate, workmates at a small Chicago brewery, are romantically involved with others but also the best of friends — on and off the clock. Things get complicated, however, when the couples spend a weekend together at a lakeside retreat. With dexterity and care, Swanberg illuminates our muddled perceptions of our own relationships. He fixates on the minutiae of hanging out, the stuff of little loves and lies, the feints and thrusts we make in sorting matters of head and heart. This nimble, knowing and altogether excellent new film, refuses to dance to the usual tune.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheenhan. Directed by Harald Zwart. After teen Clary Fray witnesses a murder at a New York nightclub, a sinister stranger named Valentine attacks and kidnaps her mother. Endowed with supernatural vision, Clary recruits a band of youthful human-angel hybrids to help rescue her mother. Though it has flashes of promise, Bones traces the footsteps of its fantasy film predecessors too closely to blaze anything close to an original narrative.

The Smurfs 2 * Neil Patrick Harris, Sofia Vergara, Christina Ricci, Alan Cumming, Brendan Gleeson, Hank Azaria, Katy Perry, George Lopez. Directed by Raja Gosnell. Evil magician Gargamel continues his quest to tap the power of the Smurfs, creating a pair of his own "Smurf-alikes" called the Naughties. But without the Smurf essence, the Naughties fizzle, so Gargamel nabs Smurfettte to cast a spell. This doesn’t even pretend to be anything more but the most base, sugar-coated family entertainment, the kind of things that parents won’t even be able to comprehend, much less enjoy.

Winnie Mandela ** Jennifer Hudson, Terrence Howard. Directed by Darrell Roodt. A drama that chronicles the life of Winnie Mandela from her childhood through her marriage and her husband’s incarceration. Roodt’s by-the-numbers biopic suffers from clunky dialogue and shallow characterization, all while never deciding what to make of its leading lady. Any urgency the movie has comes from Howard, a firebrand of an actor who can’t even be contained by a plodding script.

The Wolverine **½ Hugh Jackman. Directed by James Mangold. When Wolverine is summoned to Japan by an old acquaintance, he is embroiled in a conflict that forces him to confront his own demons. The filmmakers work at creating a new take on an old protagonist and then don’t really have much new to do with him once they’ve achieved that. It’s a good effort. Just not an entirely successful one.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Florida State 12-0 (1)
2.  Alabama 11-1 (2)
3.  Ohio State 12-0 (3)
4.  Missouri 11-1 (4)
5.  Arizona State 10-2 (5)
6.  Auburn 11-1 (9)
7.  Stanford 10-2 (8)
8.  Oklahoma State 10-1 (7)
9.  Baylor 10-1 (6)
10. Oregon 10-2 (11)
11. South Carolina 10-2 (14)
12. Michigan State 11-1 (13)
13. Clemson 10-2 (10)
14. Wisconsin 9-3 (12)
15. UCLA 9-3 (17)
16. LSU 9-3 (15)
17. Oklahoma 9-2 (18)
18. Georgia 8-4 (21)
19. Washington 8-4 (23)
20. Texas A&M 8-4 (19)
21. Southern California 9-4 (16)
22. Northern Illinois 12-0 (21)
23. Louisville 10-1 (24)
24. UCF 10-1 (22)
25. Notre Dame 8-4 (25)