Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Listen up, America! Our neighbors are growling!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 27, 2015

This week's DVD releases

Last Days in Vietnam ***½ Directed by Rory Kennedy. This documentary recounts the Vietnam War’s final days, when unexpected roadblocks threatened the evacuation of America’s South Vietnamese allies. At once riveting and heartbreaking. This youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy has the good sense — far rarer among documentarians than you’d like to think — not to get in the way of her material.

Inherent Vice ***½ Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benecio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short. In 1970, a drug-fueled Los Angeles detective investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend. An aggressively weird movie, which you should take not as a warning but as a compliment and an invitation to rent it, to watch it and to let its stoner vibes wash all over you.

Paddington *** Directed by Paul King. Starring Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Nicole KidmanBen Whishaw. A young Peruvian bear travels to London in search of a home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he meets the kindly Brown family, who offer him a temporary haven. Because of its adorable protagonist, laugh-out-loud gags and touching premise, Paddington succeeds in a way most CGI/live-action hybrids do not.

Mommy *** Directed by Xavier Dolan. A widowed single mother, raising her violent son alone, finds new hope when a mysterious neighbor inserts herself into their household. It feels like living inside a pressure cooker with one particular family — experiencing their turbulence as if from the inside, while always a little glad to be watching from a safe distance.

Appropriate Behavior *** Directed by Desiree Akhavan. As a bisexual Iranian-American, Shirin doesn’t quite fit in to her perfect Persian family -- and she can’t make a relationship work. So she goes on a journey of self-discovery and sexual adventure in an effort to come to terms with her identity. The film jumps back and forth to Shirin’s unraveling relationship with her girlfriend, but what stands out are the funny, awkward, sometimes painful moments with her family and with various hook-ups — topped off by a delicate, nuanced and satisfying final scene.

Boy Meets Girl *** Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Growing up in conservative Kentucky, Ricky (Michelle Hendley) has always regarded himself as a woman in a male’s body but isn’t able to make a connection with the right man. Often, it feels conspicuously educational. The movie works best when it focuses on its intimate story of love between family and friends in a small town.

The Gambler ** Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, Brie Larson. Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is living two distinct lives: Besides working as a college professor, he’s a compulsive gambler who’s deeply in debt to a loan shark. While scrambling to save his skin, Jim also becomes involved with one of his students. Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) doesn’t match the feverish nature of Karel Reisz’s original, and the gambling sequences convey the sameness of a habit but not as much tension to it.

The Barber Directed by Basel Owies. Starring Scott Glenn, Chris Coy, Stephen Tobolowsky. Decades after his detective father committed suicide for failing to put serial killer Eugene Van Wingerdt behind bars, the lawman’s son resolves to bring him to justice — by posing as an aspiring murderer looking to become Eugene’s protégé. Glenn handles the balancing act required of him in The Barber with his usual skill. The film, though, delivers its plot twists muddily and doesn’t really distinguish itself from the countless other creepy-killer tales out there.

The Devil’s Violinist Directed by Bernard Rose, Starring David Garrett, Jared Harris, Joely Richardson. The life story of Italian violinist and composer, Niccolò Paganini, who rose to fame as a virtuoso in the early 19th Century. Rose’s elegantly staged but tonally flat biopic embraces the myth, even underscoring Paganini’s rising fame, scandalous hedonism, and womanizing as an anachronistic form of rock-star fantasy.

50 to 1 Directed by Jim Wilson. Starring Skeet Ulrich, Christian Kane, William Devane. Tells the story behind Mine That Bird, the underdog horse that defied the odds to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby. While the film isn’t without charming moments — the Derby sequence is entertaining — the lack of narrative sophistication grates.

The Wedding Ringer Directed by Jeremy Garelick. Starring Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco. Two weeks shy of his wedding, a socially awkward guy enters into a charade by hiring the owner of a company that provides best men for grooms in need. Despite the considerable charisma of Hart and Gad and a strong supporting cast, The Wedding Ringer has only one or two genuinely inspired bits of comedy, a few dopey moments when you laugh in spite of yourself — and long, long stretches of pointless montages, loud and unfunny physical shtick and far too much reliance on gay "humor."

The Boy Next Door * Directed by Rob Cohen. Starring Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, John Corbett, Kristin Chenoweth. Adjusting to life without her husband, a recently separated mom is pleased when a teenage boy moves into the neighborhood and befriends her son. But before long, she becomes intimately involved with the teen and comes to regret it. Breathless, uninspired junk that feels like the iffiest bits of a Lifetime movie and late-night cable schlock slapped together. (And not erotically.)

Affluenza * Directed by Kevin Asch. Starring Ben Rosenfield, George Sulkin, Nicola Peltz, Grane Gustin, Samantha Mathis, Steve Guttenberg. An aspiring young photographer finds himself caught up in a heady world of money, sex, and privilege when he moves to wealthy Long Island in the summer of 2008. A splashy-looking yet depressingly empty exercise that is never more shallow than the times when it tries to go deep.

Always Woodstock * Directed by Rita Merson. Starring Allison Miller, Brittany Snow, Jason Ritter, Katey Segal, James Wolk, Rumer Willis. With her life in upheaval, frustrated songwriter Catherine Brown retreats to her vacant family home in Woodstock, N.Y., to review her priorities. With its faux small-town values, faux countercultural ethos and faux personal struggles, Merson’s debut feature skews closer to delusion than honesty.

Accidental Love ½* Directed by David O. Russell. Starring Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhall, Catherine Keener, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan, James Brolin. After a freak accident lodges a nail in uninsured Alice Eckle’s (Biel) head, her crusade for health care takes her to Capitol Hill. Given Russell’s involvement and a fairly solid cast that includes Gyllenhaal and Keener, just how awful could it be? Really awful. Unwatchably awful. As in, "Give it the Razzie now and be done with it" awful.

Monday, April 20, 2015

This week's major DVD Releases

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ***½ Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. In the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and loneliness, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire. The plot’s tired blood is jumped up considerably by style; all in all, it’s an intoxicating blend of eerie horror and ‘80s pop, made by an artist to keep an eye on.

Cake ** Directed by Daniel Barnz. Starring Jennifer Aniston, Adriana Barraza, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Anna Kendrick, Sam Worthington. A woman becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group while grappling with her own, very raw personal tragedy. This film is the sort of well-intentioned independent effort that can make criticism feel like overkill. There’s nothing to hate, nothing to love. The movie’s greatest virtue is that it gives Aniston a little room to play against the somewhat sardonic tough-cookie type that she deploys in vulgar comedies.

Walter Directed by Anna Mastro. Starring Andrew J. West, Justin Kirk, Neve Campbell, Leven Rambin, Milo Ventimiglia, Jim Gaffigan, Brian White, Peter Facinelli, Virginia Madsen, William H. Macy. Walter, a ticket-taker at the local cinema believes he is the son of God. He has agreed to decide the eternal fate of everyone he comes in to contact with. Much of Walter’s behavior resembles, at very least, a movie version of mental illness, only to have the story reclassify it as a coping mechanism. This unwittingly makes the character seem as affected as any Sundance stereotype — and the movie disturbing for all the wrong reasons.

Everly Directed by Joe Lynch. Starring Salma Hayek. After a call girl betrays her crime boss lover to the police, he offers a $50,000 bounty to anyone who can kill her. Trapped inside her apartment, she must fight off an endless tide of assassins to survive. Yet another boring ode to heavy breathing that’s offered under the hypocritical pretense of celebrating female empowerment.

Taken 3 * Directed by Olivier Megaton. Starring Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Forest Whitaker. A former CIA operative is framed for murder and must use his covert skills to keep himself alive while trying to prove his innocence. Sadly, the sequel isn’t even so bad as to be memorable. Instead, it’s vaporous, not even possessing the qualities indicating that anyone involved cared about any detail of the film.

Monday, April 13, 2015

This Week's Major DVD Releases

The Babadook ***½ Directed by Jennifer Kent. Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Hayley McElhinny, Barbara West, Ben Winspear. A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her. The feature debut of writer-director Kent is not just genuinely, deeply scary, but also a beautifully told tale of a mother and son, enriched with layers of contradiction and ambiguity.

Goodbye to Language *** Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Starring Héloïse Godet, Kamel Abdeli, Richard Chevallier. A drama that puts an adulterous couple in the midst of a chorus of voices and kaleidoscopic images denouncing the ills of modern society. Godard’s full length take on 3D is bold, brilliant and exactly what the format needed — a iconoclast taking it and making his own, and almost every time he frames a shot in three dimensions, from opening credits to the final moments, there’s something attention-grabbing going on. It looses a little on standard television screens, however.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice *** Directed by Anthony Powell. A chronicle of what it is like to live in Antarctica for a full year, including winters isolated from the rest of the world, and enduring months of darkness in the coldest place on Earth. The extremes of the film might seem routine to fans of nature documentaries, but photographer/director Powell produces some dazzling imagery in his droll study of isolation way, way down under.

Maps to the Stars *** Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasilowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, Sarah Gadon. A tour into the heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts. Cronenberg’s map doesn’t lead to a satisfying destination in a typical story sense, but it is a remarkable quest. For a movie that has so many problems, it is one of the more watchable ones.

Big Eyes **½ Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman. A drama about the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s. Entertaining in spots, obvious and irritating in others, with a one-note schticky performance from Waltz, this is a strangely conventional entry in Burton’s filmography.

God Help the Girl **½ Directed by Stuart Murdoch. Starring Emily Browning, Hannah Murray, Olly Alexander. A young girl, whose gift for songwriting sees her through a troubled life, winds up in Glasgow, where she finally meets others who share her passion. While Murdoch exhibits masterful control in a recording studio, he isn’t a natural-born filmmaker. Much of this film feels haphazardly stitched together, with pieces missing or placed in the wrong order, as though he didn’t get all the footage he needed.

You’re Not You **½ Directed by George C. Wolfe. Starring Hilary Swank, Emmy Rossum, Josh Duhamel, Loretta Devine, Ernie Hudson, Frances Fisher, Marcia Gay Harden, Ali Larter, Jason Ritter, Julian McMahon, Andrea Savage. Finding her life upended after being diagnosed with a fatal illness, a classical pianist inexplicably hires her polar opposite — a flighty college student — as a caregiver. Here’s the frustrating thing about You’re Not You: Wolfe clearly knows what he’s doing and has the actors to pull it off, but he’s tasteful to a fault. Great melodramas achieve the sublime by risking ridicule, something which You’re Not You does only once.

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death Directed by Tom Harper. Starring Phoebe Fox, Jeremy Irvine, Helen McCrory, Adrian Rawlins, Leanne Best, Ned Dennehy. Evacuated from London to a long-deserted country estate during World War II, a group of orphans and their teacher think they’ve found refuge. Soon, however, the youngsters’ odd behavior reveals a force even more evil than what they were fleeing. Every good idea this sequel has to offer winds up taking a backseat to the most obvious cat-in-the-closet "BOO!" moments imaginable.

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken * Directed by Daniel Alfredson. Starring Jim Sturgess, Sam Worthington, Ryan Kwanten, Anthony Hopkins, Mark van Eeuwen, Tom Cocquerel, Jemima West. The inside story of the planning, execution, rousing aftermath and ultimate downfall of the kidnappers of beer tycoon Alfred "Freddy" Heineken, which resulted in the largest ransom ever paid for an individual. A dull, trite thriller.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A radical idea for basketball

I've been hearing a lot of talk recently about ways to "speed up" the game of basketball, especially college basketball. Television viewership is one the decline and many attribute it to the slow pace of the game. Personally I think it's a bunch of hooey.

The real reason why viewership down is the so-called "one-and-done" rule in college basketball. The average viewer doesn't watch a basketball team to see a particular team, unless, of course, you're a diehard follower of that particular team. They tune in to see their favorite players in action. I think more people are going to watch an Oklahoma City Thunder game so see Russell Westbrook in action than they will because they are rooting for the Thunder. I watch a lot of Golden State games because I get a big kick out of watching Seth Curry and Klay Thompson effortlessly hit those three pointers from ridiculous distances and sometimes in seemingly impossible situations. When he was healthy, I watched the Laker games to see Kobe in action. He always amazed me at least once per game.

But it took time for the reputations of Russell and Seth and Klay and Kobe to develop. I never went out of my way to watch them during their rookie seasons because I didn't have enough information on them yet to compel me to watch.

The college game, on the other hand, is composed entirely of "rookies" or upperclassman like Rick Kaminsky of Wisconsin no one outside the immediate Big 10 community knows anything about until tournament time.

The powers-that-be have come up with two solutions to speed make the college game more inviting to viewers. Shorten the 35-second shot clock down to, if not at the NBA level of 24 seconds, at least to 30 seconds. If the college game wants to do that, it's fine with me although I don't think it will have a significant impact. I watched a whole lot of college basketball during the NCAA tournament and I would be willing to bet that in at least 90 percent of the total possessions, the team with the ball took a shot before 30 seconds expired on the 35-second shot clock. Another solution is to move what I call the charge arc -- that semi-circle painted just outside the basket that determines whether a charging foul should be called -- a foot further out in the court. I can't see how that would have any impact whatsoever on the pace of the game, but if someone out there would like to try to convince me, go for it.

Now, if these guys were really serious about not only quickening the pace of the game but in making the overall product better they could take the simple step of eliminating the single most boring play in all of basketball -- namely, the free throw.

Nothing, not a single thing other than a time-out or the end of a period brings the pace of a basketball game to a grinding halt faster than having everyone stop playing in order to form two lines while one player stands 15 feet from the basket and takes one or two shots at the dang thing. End the practice right now. Get rid of it.

Instead, if a team is fouled, that team is awarded a single point as well as the ball out of bounds at the closest point to where the foul occurred. If a team is fouled in the last two minutes of a period, they are awarded two points and the ball out of bounds. A flagrant foul results in two points; a flagrant foul in the last two minutes is three.

Think of all the other positive ways this would impact the game. It would practically eliminate the "Hack-a-Shaq" philosophy of some coaches who will purposely foul poor free-throw shooters on the opposing team. Instead, these coaches are going to have to teach their players how to defend properly, and I see nothing wrong with that. It would also mean that the last two minutes of each game don't last a seeming eternity where all we see is a constant parade of players to the free  throw line.

Now I know this idea won't get any traction because it is radical even though it makes perfect sense and has no downsides except to those who "respect the purity of the original game." But basketball came up with the radical idea of the 3-point play. Remember, the NBA only adopted the 3-point play at the beginning of the 1979 basketball season and college basketball only set a standard 3-point arc of 20 feet, 9 inches for all NCAA teams in time for the 2008-09 season.

So change can come and now is the time to change the rules on personal fouls.

Monday, April 6, 2015

This week's major DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

A Most Violent Year ***½ Directed by J.C. Chandor. Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Christopher Abbott, Peter Gerety, Alessandro Nivola. Amid New York City’s crime-filled winter of 1981, immigrant Abel Morales and his wife try to operate a successful business, only to see their efforts threatened by the lawless atmosphere permeating the streets. Stylish, sophisticated, simmering crime and character drama with Shakespearean dimension and bravura performances. Who knew heating oil could be a sexy subject?

The Immigrant *** Directed by James Gay. Starring. Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner. After arriving in New York, a Polish immigrant must provide for her ill sister — and soon falls under the thumb of a charming thug, who forces her into a life of prostitution. But when she falls for a magician, her fortunes turn. This is the first film Gray has made with a female protagonist — he wrote the part specifically for Cotillard — and he gives the character the same resilience and resourcefulness usually reserved in movies for men.

The Voices **½ Directed by Marjane Satrapi. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver. Leading a quiet bachelor existence, acfactory employee develops a crush on a lovely girl from accounting but ends up killing her by accident. However, his suddenly verbal cat and dog are there to help him consider his next move. Satrapi makes some bad calls in her attempts to balance bleak humor with bleaker thrills, including ending the film on a glibly cheerful note. Her best decision, bar none, was entrusting such heavy material to the guy who played Van Wilder. Behind that perpetual smirk lurks a talent for quiet depravity. Bonkers looks good on him.