Monday, March 30, 2015

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Wild *** Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman. A chronicle of one woman’s 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe. While the wilderness vistas are starkly beautiful, there’s no tangible sense of the heroine’s ultimate goal. (Why Oregon?) And the flashbacks, which include scenes of sexual misadventure and heroin use, are too brief to provide answers.

Interstellar *** Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley. A team of explorers travel through a wormhole in an attempt to ensure humanity’s survival. While it reaches for the stars, director Nolan’s film is a flawed masterpiece. The story is ever-ambitious, sometimes riveting and thought-provoking, but also plodding and hokey and not as visionary as its cutting-edge special effects.

The Imitation Game *** Directed by Morten Tyldum. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley. During World War II, mathematician Alan Turing tries to crack the Enigma code with help from fellow mathematicians. It’s a good story, a sad story, a story of triumph and prejudice and terrible hypocrisy. And Cumberbatch aces it all — another smartly realized but deeply soulful performance from an actor who seemingly can do no wrong.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What in heaven's name is Cruz up to this time?

One of the many things I love about this country is that this is a land whose people will never elect Ted Cruz as its president. So why did he make this semi ripple yesterday when he staged this mini-event in front of a bunch of right-wing college students — all of whom we forced to attend and a significant number of whom wore Rand Paul t-shirts? One news moderator stated flat out last night that what Cruz did was to announce his candidacy for vice-president.

I don’t get it. What Republican seriously hoping to buck the political tide to win the presidency in 2016 would be so stupid as to name Cruz as his running mate. Wait a minute … there was that fellow from Arizona for whom I had a modest amount of respect for until he pulled the all-time political boner by naming Sarah Palin for vice president. So I guess when it comes to that, anything is possible.

But then Palin was largely an unknown in the thawed out sections of the country. Cruz is anything but. And he goes out of his way to alienate other Republicans. I have heard him referred to many times as "the most hated man in Congress." Listen to his speech yesterday. It was all about criticizing other Republicans for not agreeing with his wacko views.

Cruz will do well where the IQ of the Republican voter is not all that high — Iowa, South Carolina and, of course, right here in Texas. But is he hoping to leverage that into … well, what exactly?

I think Cruz is all about ego and his candidacy has nothing to do with realistic expectations. Unlike Palin, Cruz is not stupid. He’s got something up his sleeve besides any honest-to-heavens belief he could actually one day become president. But what is it? Is it merely to drive the Republican debate and platform so far to the right that it plunges right over the cliff? Does he want to be the one presiding over the wreckage he alone causes?

Since he became a U.S. senator every single strategic move he has tried to thwart one of President Obama’s programs has failed miserably. I can’t see how this latest one can succeed either —no way, no how.

Monday, March 23, 2015

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Into the Woods *** Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Chris Prine, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt. A witch tasks a childless baker and his wife with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree. The first two-thirds of the film, which are like the Brothers Grimm’s Greatest Hits on laughing gas, have a fizzy, fairy-dust energy. But as soon as the baker couple’s scavenger hunt is over and a rampaging giant appears, Woods loses its magic and momentum and sags like an airless balloon.

Unbroken **½ Directed by Angelina Jolie. Starring Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Jai Courtney, Jack O’Connell, Alex Russell, John D’Leo. After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. With what I see on the screen weighted too much toward pain and too little toward redemption, this is a film I respect more than love, and that is something of a wasted opportunity.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies **½ Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Evangeline Lilly, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Luke Evans. Bilbo and Company are forced to engage in a war against an array of combatants and keep the Lonely Mountain from falling into the hands of a rising darkness. The finale is not an all-out disappointment. It should satisfy the franchise’s fans, and it does wrap up any loose ends you might be wondering about.

Song One ** Directed by Kate Barker-Froyland. Starring Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, Ben Rosenfield, Lola Kirke, Paul Whitty, Dan Deacon. A young woman strikes up a relationship with her ailing brother’s favorite musician. The movie, which marks the director’s feature debut, has the low-key appeal of Once, with its extended scenes of music and drama-free romantic subplot. But the characters in Song One are stubbornly bland, despite their quirks.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A few thoughts about this year's men's NCAA basketball tournament

This tournament is one of the few times that, given the choice between one team and the field, I would bet on the one team.

The two best teams in the tournament not named Kentucky are Wisconsin and Arizona. Unfortunately, they are both in the West bracket.

The final game I would love to see would be Kentucky vs. Wisconsin, but the way the tournament is set up, they would meet in a semifinal game. I see Kentucky shellacking Duke 77-62 in the finals.

There will be upsets, but most of them will come in the early rounds. As the tournament progresses, chalk will prevail. In fact, this year’s Final Four should consist of three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 (Virginia).

The major upsets I see in the first round are Buffalo over West Virginia and Texas over Butler in the Midwest, BYU over Xavier in the West and Eastern Washington over Georgetown in the South.

The biggest upset I see in round two is North Carolina State knocking off No 1 seed Villanova in the East. (A mild upset in the East is Northern Iowa defeating Louisville.) Other significant upsets I’m predicting in round two are Wichita State over 2-seed Kansas in the Midwest and BYU over 3-seed Baylor in the West.

I see an Elite 8 consisting of three No. 1 seeds ( Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke), two No. 2s (Arizona and Virginia), two 3s (Notre Dame and Iowa State) and one eighth-seed (North Carolina State).

Word to the wise: Don’t wager large amounts of money on what I’ve just said. I’m never correct about these things.

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Song of the Sea ***½ Directed by Tomm Moore. This animated tale follows young Saoirse, the last of a magical race of beings who exist as seals in water but turn into humans on land. After she and her brother are sent to live in the city, they begin an epic quest to return to their seaside home. Differentiated not only by its rich visual design — grayer and more subdued than The Secret of Kells, yet still a marvel to behold — but also by its ethereal musical dimension, another collaboration between composer Bruno Coulais and Irish folk band Kila.

Top Five ***½ Directed by Chris Rock. Starring Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan. A comedian tries to make it as a serious actor when his reality-TV star fiancée talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her TV show. One of the most vibrant, sly romantic comedies to appear in theaters in 2014.

Low Down **½ Directed by Jeff Preiss. Starring John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Peter Dinklage. A look at the life of pianist Joe Albany from the perspective of his young daughter, Amy, as she watches him contend with his drug addiction during the 1960s and ‘70s jazz scene. Keeps the histrionics to a minimum, but the inertia of a good man failing to be a good father isn’t enough to sustain nearly two hours of reflection, especially when Preiss consistently suggests that telling Amy’s story from Joe’s perspective would have made for a much better film.

Penguins of Madagascar ** Directed by Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith. Penguins Skipper, Rico, Private and Kowalski team with a covert group, the North Wind, to stage an all-or-nothing showdown with the fiendish Dr. Octavius Brine. Strives to be entertaining, but for much of its run time it is so emotionally uninvolving that even the smallest children might find themselves bored.

Exodus: Gods and Kings ** Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley. Moses rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses, setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt. Illustrates a typical contradiction of commercial entertainment: By playing it safe, the movie fails to enrich the material, and never captures the energy that has made its narrative so captivating for millennia.

Annie * Directed by Will Gluck. Starring Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhané Wallis, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Cameron Diaz. A foster kid, who lives with her mean foster mom, sees her life change when business tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes her in. Gluck’s glam, grim re-imagining of the Depression-era musical about the hard-hearted rich man and the little girl who melts him, is truly depressing.

Friday, March 13, 2015

It's evident where Parker Rice learned his cowardly racism

Racists are cowards. That’s why some of the earliest known racists sought anonymity behind white sheets and traveled in packs. These days they still try to hide their identities and they are usually successful at it unless someone blows their cover on You Tube. And they still travel in packs and sometimes the packs are found on buses and are called fraternities.

Highland Park racist Parker Rice is one such coward. And now it seems he comes from a family of cowards. Like his fellow Dallas racist Levi Petit, Rice, instead of facing the consequences like a straight-up human being, he hid behind the facade of an all-too-polished written statement of "apology," which they bungled anyway by trying to blame others (that demon alcohol and those bad, bad boys who taught them the racist chant they were caught singing).

But Rice and his family had a wonderful opportunity to go a long way to make amends. A group of no more than 12 to 15 individuals "protested" outside of the Rice family home the night before last. Now if I’m the patriarch of the Rice family Klan, what I’m going to do is throw open the front door of that family home, invite those 12 to 15 people inside, and invite them to join our family for dinner and a sit-down discussion. I am going to ask them what is it I can do, what is it I or my son can say to you privately and/or to the world publicly, to make this thing better. I know it won’t go away. It’s a permanent stain that will never go way. But what can we do together to make it better? And then I would see how many of those things I could do and I would hope I could do every last one of them.

That’s what I would have done if I had been Papa Rice.

But what did Papa Rice do? He packed up the family and lit out for parts unknown. They ran away. They took the coward’s way out.

Monday, March 9, 2015

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Listen Up Philip *** Directed by Alex Ross Perry. Starring Jason Schwartzman, Elizabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de la Baume, Jonathan Pryce. A self-absorbed New York writer juggles the pressures of promoting his second book, watching his relationship deteriorate and living in an unforgiving city when his literary hero offers him an escape in the form of a summer home. The terrific cast all delves into the material full-bore, which contributes to its peculiar resonance. Perry may hate everyone and everything, but in making a show of it, he’s thoroughly entertaining.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb ** Directed by Shawn Levy. Starring Ben Stiller, Rebel Wilson, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Ben Kingsley. Security guard Larry Daley plunges into an adventure that transports him to a London museum, where he’s surrounded by a new set of artifacts. The special effects remain good, but the jokes are creaky, the sentiments are forced and the pop-historical lessons are obligatory.

Monday, March 2, 2015

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Foxcatcher ***½ Directed by Bennett Miller. Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Michael Hall, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave. Preparing for the 1988 Olympics, two sibling wrestlers cross paths with a paranoid schizophrenic millionaire. Rare is the drama that plumbs the quirky, unsettling depths of human nature like Foxcatcher. Simultaneously understated and grippingly edgy, this is an arresting examination of naivete, mismatched worlds and old-fashioned American oddness.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One **½ Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland. Katniss Everdeen is called on to lead her people in a rebellion against the all-powerful Capital. It’s a joyless, surpassingly dour enterprise, but one that fulfills its mission with Katniss’s own eagle-eyed efficiency and unsentimental somberness.

The Humbling **½ Directed by Barry Levinson. Starring Al Pacino, Dianne Wiest, Greta Gerwig, Charles Grodin, Kyra Sedgwick. A stage actor who is slowly losing his mind engages in a relationship with a sexually confused younger woman. Should have been more brisk, should have been cut, and should have had more of the Pacino who finishes this thing off with a flourish. The soul searching and sense of a life misspent are interesting. But there’s an awful lot of hooey before we get to the "Hoo hah."

The Better Angels ** Directed by A.J. Edwards. Starring Brit Marling, Diane Kruger, Jason Clarke, Wes Bentley. The story of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood in the harsh wilderness of Indiana and the hardships that shaped him. In the absence of a more conventional storytelling approach, this series of brief, fragmented glimpses of the harsh challenges that shaped Lincoln’s early life never allows you to get sufficiently close to its celebrated subject.

The Last of Robin Hood ** Directed by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland. Starring Kevin Kline, Dakota Fanning, Susan Sarandon. The last days in the life of actor Errol Flynn. Veers between disapproval, farce and something uncomfortably close to envy, with a trio of game performances barely holding things together.