Movies on DVD

Lone Star Cinema: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room posterThe names Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow are not as prevalent in the media as they were in the last decade. These men, behind the success (such as it was) and severe failure of Enron, were eventually found guilty of fraud and other charges.

The 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is based on the book of the same name. Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) interviews the book's authors, journalist Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, along with journalists, political figures and former Enron employees. Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich), who could narrate practically anything and lend it a certain credence, talks of the bravado and bluff in the history of the energy-trading company based in Houston. 

These interviews and Coyote's narration speak to the shenanigans going down at the once-praised company. The "macho culture" at the business is described, corraborated by video clips from an extreme motocross trip and discussion of one executive's love for strippers (with requisite strip club footage). Audio of male traders making rude and conspiratorial remarks is played over scenes from the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis. In such a case, it's not shocking that a woman, Sherron Watkins, turned whistleblower against Enron.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts the real-life events as a sort of morality tale, with many of the interviewees speaking about the lousy ethics of the company's business and their "synergistic corruption."  The director includes C_SPAN video of Skilling before a Senate committee, lying about his part in the faulty financing Enron was using.  Because the company appeared to be doing so well -- they were making loads of money, anyway -- any outside person who tried to ask important questions about the business or look closer at their dealings faced repurcussions.

Lone Star Cinema: The Newton Boys

newton boys still

After Slacker and Dazed and Confused but before Bernie, Before Midnight and the soon-to-be-released Boyhood, Richard Linklater made a charming little movie called The Newton Boys. Filmed in Texas and featuring a band of charismatic actors (most of whom have gone on to considerable success in film and/or television), this true story depicts the bank-robbing exploits of four entrepreneurial and adventure-loving brothers in the early 20th century. 

Raised in Uvalde County, Texas in a cotton farming family, the Newton brothers are an unruly bunch whose lives tell a one-of-a-kind story of American idealism and brash (but mostly non-violent) outlaw behavior. After Dock and Willis, the oldest two brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio and Matthew McConaughey), experience various real and perceived injustices (including class-based discrimination, wrongful imprisonment and general mistreatment by authority figures), they give up on trying to live lawful lives and instead decide to take what they think should be theirs.

This means emptying banks ("it's just little thieves taking from big thieves") and lying whenever necessary but vowing never to kill anyone. Thanks to the nitroglycerin supplied by cohort Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) and the endearingly slow transportation and communication systems of the 1920s, Dock and Willis (also joined by their younger brothers Jess and Joe, played by Ethan Hawke and Skeet Ulrich) are able to become incredibly successful bank robbers, and they proceed to spend several years joyfully blowing up and clearing out dozens of safes and trains from Texas to Canada. 

Lone Star Cinema: An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story

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An Unreal Dream

If you spent nearly 25 years in prison for a crime you didn't commit, would you be bitter?

Michael Morton isn't. Which is surprising, given that he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, spent almost 25 years behind bars and would remain there today if not for the tenacious attorneys who won his release.

Morton's frightening ordeal is the subject of An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, a moving 2013 documentary  released on DVD April 1. More than just a recounting of Morton's astonishing and infuriating story, the film is a meditation on faith and redemption.

The film's title is based on a quote from United States Justice Learned Hand: "Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream." But "an unreal dream" is too tepid a description of Morton's suffering; his story is in every way a nightmare.

Lone Star Cinema: The Iron Giant

Still from The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant may not have been a box-office success upon its original 1999 release, but the animated film based in 1957 Maine has come to be loved and appreciated by many in the years since. The quirky, heartbreaking sci-fi tale pairs the beauty of its hand-drawn animation with a powerful message.

Hogarth (Eli Marienthal, American Pie) is a young boy in fictional coastal town Rockwell (presumably named after this Rockwell) who stumbles upon a ginormous alien machine one night. Hogarth befriends the giant, who has lost most of his memory, and attempts to pass knowledge on to the larger being. Harry Connick, Jr. figures into the voice cast as a hipster scrap metal collector/artist who supervises some of Hogarth and the giant's interactions.

Meanwhile, Hogarth's widowed mom Annie (Jennifer Aniston) rents out a room to government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald, Thelma & Louise), sent to the town after reports of metal monsters and strange happenings make their way to Washington.  As Hogarth tries to teach the giant that he can choose to be what he wants (instead of what the machine may have been designed for), Mansley is determined to prove the dangerous existence of the imposing metal figure.

Lone Star Cinema: 25th Hour

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Edward Norton in 25th Hour

It seems strange to select such a New York City-centric film as Spike Lee's 25th Hour for Lone Star Cinema, but the epilogue for the movie was filmed in our state. So, here we are. Released a year after 9/11, the movie moves at a kind of meditative pace as drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) spends his last day as a free man in NYC. He meanders around the city with his rescued pitbull Doyle, and has dinner with his dad (a gruff Brian Cox, The Bourne Identity) before meeting friends at a club for one last fete.

There are a few flashbacks as Monty recalls meeting his younger lady love, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson, Rent) and suspects her possible involvement in the bust that led to his arrest. His two closest friends are from childhood: slick investment banker Frank (Barry Pepper, True Grit) and lumpy prep school teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote). All three commiserate and celebrate with Marty as he faces a seven-year sentence.

25th Hour is based on a screenplay by David Benioff, who wrote the original novel (and would go on to run HBO's Game of Thrones). The language is gritty, especially in the harsh monologue Norton's character delivers to a bathroom mirror: a rant about ethnic and other minorities in the city that speaks more to his feeling of absolute desparation than anything else. The rapport between the three fellows is often believably strained and forced, for what do they really have in common anymore besides the length of time they've known each other?

Lone Star Cinema: D.O.A.

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D.O.A.

Had the stylish thriller D.O.A. been more plausible, it might be more than a footnote in the history of Austin film.

Released in 1988, the murder mystery had much promise. After all, it was a loose remake of an iconic Fifties whodunit of the same title. Its leads were Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, two sexy Hollywood darlings on the verge of megastardom. At the helm were Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, co-directors of the innovative, critically acclaimed and quintessentially Eighties TV series The Max Headroom Show.

But for all its potential, the movie D.O.A. is mostly forgettable mix of crime thriller clichés and farfetched plotting. It's a watchable bit of neo-noir, but nothing more.

Lone Star Cinema: Friday Night Lights

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Friday Night Lights poster

For this Thanksgiving week edition of Lone Star Cinema, I selected an influential football film from the mid-aughts. Before the acclaimed series Friday Night Lights started shooting in town, the 2004 film, starred Billy Bob Thornton as coach to a Texas high school football team. Based on the same-titled book by Buzz Bissinger, Friday Night Lights depicts the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, from the promising pre-season to their challenging finish at state.

The movie places quick scenes from the lives of several of the senior players in between montages of the Friday night action in Odessa's Ratliff Stadium. Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) plays Boobie Miles, an assured running back who is the team's star. I'd argue Luke gives the best performance in the movie. Midway through Friday Night Lights, his character faces an obstacle he may not be able to overcome, and Luke aptly conveys Boobie's bluster, might and heartbreak.

Quiet quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black, Sling Blade, Jarhead) finds it hard to engage in the game as his thoughts dwell on his uncertain academic future and the fate of his sickly mother. Billingsley, the fullback played by Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy), lives with an abusive drunk dad (country singer Tim McGraw) who was once on a Permian team that won the state championship. 

I wanted to know more about the backstories of younger player Comer -- the recently departed Lee Thompson Young (The Famous Jett Jackson) shows such promise here -- as well as stoic linebacker Ivory Christian (former UT player Lee Jackson) and safety Chavez (Jay Hernandez, spotted on ABC's Nashville). For a film that is practically two hours long, Friday Night Lights is relatively light on plot and spends much of its time on the field. I guess if I want to know more about the players, I'd have to read the book.

Lone Star Cinema: JFK

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JFK

Oliver Stone isn't known for subtlety. From the sledgehammered anti-greed message of Wall Street to the relentless nihilistic violence of Natural Born Killers, the director seldom is guilty of understatement.

Stone's most ambitious film, JFK, is no less over-the-top than his other works. Released in 1991, JFK is an orgy of Stone's signature style, a movie saturated (really, oversaturated) with visual and sound effects, artsy segues, and themes repeated too often. It's also one of the most important films made in Texas, a hugely successful and controversial movie by one of the most popular directors of its era.

As its title implies, JFK is about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but it's less about the tragic event than the countless conspiracy theories surrounding it. The film is based on the real-life story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), whose suspicions about Kennedy's murder led him to conduct a years-long investigation.

Lone Star Cinema: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

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The Best Little Whorehouse in TexasThe level of camp in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is obvious from the start. Jim Nabors narrates its opening sequence as the amiable Deputy Fred, and he explains the history of the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel as we watch an overview of prostitution through the ages. Everything is fabulously, raucously choreographed -- and the choreography and camp never end in this endearingly goofy movie.

The 1982 film is mostly faithful to the hit musical of the same name, which is somewhat less faithful to the real story of the Chicken Ranch and investigative reporter Marvin Zindler's crusade to close it.

Set in the mid '70s, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is the saga of an iconic brothel in the fictional southeast Texas town of Gilbert. (The real brothel's home was La Grange.) Madam Mona Stangley (Dolly Parton) and her employees go about their business with plenty of support from the townspeople, and Miss Mona is a generous and respected member of the community. Even the law is on the brothel's side; this is not surprising, given Mona's longtime affair with Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Burt Reynolds).

All is well until Houston TV reporter Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLuise) decides to do an exposé on the Chicken Ranch as a ratings ploy. Sheriff Dodd tries to intervene by paying Thorpe a friendly visit, but to no avail; as Dodd watches, the self-aggrandizing Thorpe announces on his show that "Texas has a whorehouse in it."

In desperation, the sheriff convinces Mona to shut down the Chicken Ranch until the unwanted attention fades away, hoping to foil Thorpe's plans to catch the working girls at work. Mona agrees, but then keeps the place open for one more night for some of her best customers -- the Texas A&M Aggie football team, seeking their traditional reward for defeating the University of Texas Longhorns. (The Longhorns earn the same reward when they win.)

Thorpe ambushes the Chicken Ranch and catches the Aggies in flagrante delicto, infuriating Sheriff Dodd and creating a scandal that ultimately involves the governor of Texas (Charles Durning).

Does the Chicken Ranch survive? If you know your Texas history, you know the answer; if not, you'll have to watch The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas to learn the fate of Miss Mona and her girls.

Lone Star Cinema: Rushmore

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Jason Schwartzman and Seymour Cassell in Rushmore

Rushmore tends to be a favorite among Wes Anderson fans I've known. Even people who don't typically like Anderson's movies still appreciate the 1998 prep school comedy. Anderson's second film, based on a screenplay he wrote with Owen Wilson, has bite to it, and isn't as overly stylized as his later works. 

Jason Schwartzman plays 15-year-old Max, who is overinvolved with extracurricular activities at Rushmore Academy, a boys' prep school. He's not as adept at academics, however. The headmaster (Brian Cox) refers to him as "one of the worst students we've got." In one fall month, Max becomes besotted with widowed grade-school teacher Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams) and befriends bored millionaire Harold Blume (Bill Murray).

Max is self-confident, yet struggles when Ms. Cross doesn't return his affections.  Both he and Blume stalk Ms. Cross periodically. During a recent re-watch, my friend and I found this harassment -- along with Max's shooting of an air rifle at the school campus that was supposedly funny at that time, I guess -- off-putting.  Max is finally humbled when his quest to build an aquarium in her honor (on school grounds) gets him expelled.

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