Movies on DVD

Lone Star Cinema: Silkwood

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Meryl Streep in Silkwood (with a blurry young David Strathairn in the background)

When writer/director Nora Ephron died months ago, I was surprised to see Silkwood mentioned along the many other credits in her obits. Little did I know Ephron co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for this 1983 drama alongside Alice Arlen.  Then I found out via IMDb searching that the movie was filmed in Texas! Obviously, I had to move it up my Netflix queue.

Silkwood is based on the true story of the woman of the same name, Karen Silkwood, who was born in Longview and spent some time in Beaumont. When we meet her in the film, however, she's a gal in her mid-twenties, played by Meryl Streep, working at a nuclear facility in small-town Oklahoma. Karen lives with boyfriend Drew (Kurt Russell) and best friend Dolly (Cher), who both work in the plant as well.

There are many other recognizable faces in this movie. David Strathairn and Fred Ward (who I know best from my childhood favorite Big Business) play co-workers in Silkwood's division, Craig T. Nelson appears as a smarmy guy at the plant, and I even spied Bill Cobbs (I'll Fly Away, Go On) in a lunchroom scene.

Lone Star Cinema: Hands on a Hardbody

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Hands on a Hardbody

It's a human drama thing. It's more than just a contest and it's more than just winning the truck. -- Benny Perkins, Hands on a Hardbody

If you're unfamiliar with Hands on a Hardbody, the essential thing to know about this compelling documentary is that that it's not about trucks. It focuses on a contest to win a truck, but the tricked-out 1995 Nissan Hardbody pickup is merely a prop at the center of a fascinating collection of character studies and a great commentary on human nature. The movie has finally been released on DVD and will have a special screening in Austin on Friday.

In S.R. Bindler's cult-classic 1997 film, a Longview, Texas car dealership sponsors a contest in which two dozen contestants compete to win a new pickup. The event is a grueling test of endurance: The lucky (and exhausted) winner is whoever remains standing the longest with at least one hand on the truck. The rules are rather draconian -- contestants are allowed only a five-minute break every hour and a 15-minute break every six hours. They must remain standing the entire time; no leaning, squatting or kneeling is allowed. A contestant who removes both hands from the truck for even one second is out of the contest.

Lone Star Cinema: Before Sunset

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Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunset

In Richard Linklater's movie Before Sunset (2004), we meet up again with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Jesse stops in Paris to promote his book, This Time, a fictionalization of the experience he had with Celine in Vienna nine years prior. And who does he spot in Shakespeare & Co. but Celine herself? They decide to have coffee and chat before Jesse has to catch a flight in the evening. The film is something of a real-time depiction of how they spend the next couple of hours.

The naivete of the kids from Before Sunrise is nowhere to be seen here. Jesse and Celine are now in their thirties and have dealt with some blows from life. The rhythm of their conversation flows realistically -- at the start of their time together again somewhat hesitant and impersonal, slowly opening up to show their real selves to each other as the afternoon proceeds. The screenplay from the combined forces of Linklater, Delpy and Hawke is natural and honest. 

I felt like I understood Celine far more clearly in this outing. She gets to say such lines as "Memory's a wonderful thing if you don't have to deal with the past." At one point Celine and Jesse are being driven somewhere and Delpy's character spouts some angry, emotional truths to Jesse. I wanted to give her a high five or fist bump or whatever the cool kids do to signal agreement nowadays.

Lone Star Cinema: Baby, the Rain Must Fall

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Baby, the Rain Must Fall

Baby boomers and younger fans of Sixties pop music may remember folk singer Glenn Yarbrough's "Baby, the Rain Must Fall," a major 1965 hit that remains a staple of oldies radio station playlists.

Less well remembered is that Yarbrough's hit is the title song from Baby, the Rain Must Fall, a 1965 movie starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick. In many ways, the lackluster drama deserves its relative obscurity. But with many Texas connections, it's a significant part of the state's film history.

Set in Columbus, Texas, Baby the Rain Must Fall is the story of Columbus native Henry Thomas (McQueen), an aspiring rockabilly singer/guitarist recently paroled after serving a sentence for stabbing a man during a bar fight. Thomas does his best to stay sober and out of trouble with help from Deputy Sheriff Slim (Don Murray), a lifelong friend who keeps an eye on him. Not so helpful is Henry's elderly, controlling foster mother, Kate Dawson (Georgia Simmons), who wants him to give up his singing career and threatens to have him sent back to prison if he doesn't abide by her wishes.

Lone Star Cinema: Before Sunrise

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Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise

In 1995, I saw Before Sunrise at the Highland movie theatre (now Galaxy Highland) with a couple of friends. I recall a discussion between us afterwards about whether we enjoyed the open, yet hopeful, ending of the Richard Linklater film (I believe the consensus was yes). The continuous dialogue between the two main characters in the film reminded me of the type of conversations I had with my own friends at the time -- so like my life. But I didn't watch the movie again ... until just recently.

In this romance, young American twentysomething Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Sorbonne student Celine (Julie Delpy) meet cute on a train. They lunch together, then Jesse asks Celine to get off the train with him in Vienna; he's heading back to the States the next morning, can't afford a hotel room and would love to have someone to chat with while walking around the Austrian city. And there you have it. Celine is fairly easily convinced (Jesse is very attractive, despite his scruffy facial hair) and spends the rest of the day and night with him.

Lone Star Cinema: Brewster McCloud

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Brewster McCloud

The Brewster McCloud DVD cover advertises the movie as "A different kind of film from the director of M*A*S*H."

Different. Now, there's an understatement.

Robert Altman's 1970 avian-themed follow-up to M*A*S*H is, well, an exceedingly odd bird. A sloppy mishmash of satire, crime caper and comic (but not terribly funny) weirdness, Brewster McCloud is hardly the renowned director's best work. But it's an interesting movie -- I wouldn't say it's a good one -- and one worth watching, if only to inspire a post-viewing discussion of what the hell Altman was thinking when he made it.

One thing Altman apparently wasn't thinking of is a coherent story. The titular McCloud (Bud Cort) is an introverted, intellectual young man who lives in the bowels of the Astrodome. His dream is to build a set of mechanical wings and fly, so he spends his days studying birds, building his wings, exercising to build up his muscles and sort-of-rejecting the advances of kooky Astrodome tour guide Suzanne Davis (Shelley Duvall, in her debut role). Watching over McCloud is Louise (Sally Kellerman), a guardian angel of sorts (she's certainly no angel) who gives him encouragement and protection.

'Killer Joe' DVD Release: The Forbidden Threshold

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Killer Joe Still Photo

Just in time for the holidays, Killer Joe (my review) is available on DVD and Blu-ray this Friday. With its NC-17 rating, however, this dark and often violent Texas-set film written by Tracy Letts and directed by William Friedkin is not family-friendly viewing. Starring Matthew McConaughey in the title role, along with Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church, the movie portrays a dysfunctional family dealing with betrayal and greed.

I participated in a roundtable interview with Thomas Haden Church when Killer Joe was released, and he had some additional comments about the NC-17 rating of Killer Joe, which you can read below.

What are your thoughts on the NC-17 rating for Killer Joe, was it justified?

Thomas Haden Church: I think it is, but certainly you don't go into a room with investors and say, "We're going to make the best damn NC-17 movie ever to hit theaters in America" -- that's a death sentence. Just like you don't go in and say, "We're going to make an amazing black-and-white film." You go in thinking this could be an R, but when you go get the money as they did in early 2010 -- you have the play, you know what's in the play and you know how the play was put up at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, or the Goodman Theatre and then Broadway and the West End of London.

Lone Star Cinema: North Dallas Forty

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North Dallas Forty

Better football through chemistry.

This four-word quote from North Dallas Forty says nearly all you need to know about the film. Uttered by aging, battered wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) as he receives a numbing injection in his knee -- thus allowing him to limp through another game -- it's one of many cynical quotes in an entirely cynical movie.

The cynicism about professional football is well deserved, at least if you believe novelist Peter Gent's take on his years as a Dallas Cowboy in the 1960s. Gent was none too charitable toward the Cowboys in his 1973 novel North Dallas Forty, on which the film is based. (Gent also co-wrote the script.) He tells a sordid tale of professional football's win-at-all-costs mentality, with greedy team owners and victory-obsessed coaches doping up players so they can play with crippling injuries. It's also a tale of brutish machismo; the players live in a testosterone-fueled, disgustingly misogynistic world where the biggest and meanest among them make the rules.

Unsurprisingly, most Cowboy fans -- ever a blindly faithful lot -- considered Gent's novel nothing short of blasphemous. The NFL was no less outraged, condemning the story as grossly exaggerated and dismissing it as little more than an act of revenge by a disgruntled former player. (If Peter Gent wanted to be a pariah, he succeeded.) Released in 1979, the film version of North Dallas Forty fanned the flames of outrage once again, despite being a somewhat sanitized and more comic version of the original story.

Lone Star Cinema: Shut Up and Sing

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Dixie Chicks Emily Robison, Natalie Maines & Martie Maguire in Shut Up and Sing

Hard to believe it's been almost ten years since the Bush administration led the invasion of Iraq, and sometime-Austinite/Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines made her controversial comment during a 2003 London concert: "We're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." Documentary directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck use behind-the-scenes from that notorious Dixie Chicks concert and others from their 2003 tour, then follow the pop-country trio as they work on their album Taking the Long Way in Shut Up and Sing.

The first time I saw this film was in 2006 at a free screening put on by Norman Lear's liberal org People for the American Way. Those were some angry, frustrated days. Since then I've spotted Natalie Maines at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar (while her dad Lloyd accompanied Terri Hendrix) and the Dixie Chicks have gone on hiatus. 

Lone Star Cinema: Places in the Heart

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Yankton Hatten, Gennie James, Sally Field and Danny Glover in Places in the Heart

Opening to the hymn "Blessed Assurance" and closing to "In the Garden," writer/director Robert Benton sets Places in the Heart firmly in the Bible Belt. The 1984 movie is based, and was filmed in, Benton's hometown of Waxahachie, Texas. The year is 1935 and the small town is muddling through the Depression.

Sally Field centers the film as Edna Spalding, a mother trying to hold on to her home after her sheriff husband is unexpectedly killed. In the first few minutes of the film, he is accidentally shot by a drunk young man on the train tracks. The young man is black in the Jim Crow-era South, and the repercussions of his actions are horrific. Benton chooses to parallel the deaths and funerals of the two men so we can compare, contrast and think on them.

Edna seems uncertain of her identity, role and future now that her husband is gone.  The day of her husband's funeral, young hobo Moze (Danny Glover) asks Edna for work and suggests a possible way for her to make money: Plant cotton in her fields. With the help of Moze, her blind tenant Mr. Will (John Malkovich), and her young kids Frank and Possum (Texans Yankton Hatten and Gennie James), Edna does just that. 

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