Tuesday, December 16, 2014


            Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is the movie equivalent of a chef armed with truffles, foie gras, and Waygu beef grinding it up into meatloaf. The film’s cast is impeccable, the practical effects stunning, and its underlying ideas about space and exploration universal. Yet the outcome is more pedestrian than revelatory. The film unravels because of an overcomplicated plot and underwhelming theme.
            Nolan, as he often does, has assembled a stellar cast. Matthew McConaughey continues his string of strong performances by playing against his hyper-masculine type. In Interstellar, he stars as Cooper, an astronaut-turned-farmer-turned-astronaut. Mackenzie Foy plays Murph, Cooper daughter, and their chemistry drives the emotional beats of the film. Nolan populates the film with actors far too qualified for their roles. Michael Caine’s NASA scientist instigates Cooper’s journey to the stars. Anne Hathaway’s Amelia, another scientist leads the NASA crew on the spaceship Endurance. Bill Irwin voices TARS, a multi-limbed robot, who helps and humors the crew during their journey to a black hole in orbit near Saturn. TARS’s relationship with Cooper is the most grounded and realistic in the entire movie. The rest of the cast includes Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, William Devane, Ellen Burstyn, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi, Topher Grace (looking like he’s just happy to be there) and a surprise unbilled A-list actor.
            The visual effects of Interstellar are remarkable. Nolan mostly eschewed CGI in favor for practical models for his depiction of space travel. His attention to detail pays off in a number of visually striking scenes. Saturn’s rings glitter and as the Endurance approaches its date with an artificially created wormhole. The camera remains fixed as the Endurance glides through space, spinning on its axis. Never has space looked so majestic.  Nolan’s view of space is the opposite of Alfonso Cuarón in Gravity. Where Cuarón stressed the claustrophobic and deadly nature of outer space, Nolan revels in its splendor and beauty. In Gravity, death and emptiness lurked around every corner. Protective spacecraft could easily become a deadly projectile. In Interstellar space is the next stage for mankind’s achievement—challenging, but awe inspiring.
TARS, the best character in the movie. 
            Interstellar’s themes and plot unravel everything good about the film. It is clear that Nolan is an advocate for mankind’s continued exploration of space. Our future lies out there, the film constantly reminds us. To call his method of delivering this message heavy handed would be an understatement. In a terribly written scene, Cooper laments to his father-in-law (Lithgow) about mankind’s failure to continue its space endeavors. He laments, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” On a future version of Earth where ecological disaster has ruined the planet’s food supply, maybe that sentiment is understandable? Later when the film shifts to space the heavy handedness continues. With the Endurance only capable of visiting one of two planets capable of sustaining life, Hathaway’s Amelia opts for the one where her lover is. In defending her position, Amelia argues that “Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” The power of love and importance of discovery are hardly unique or new themes.
            Further the overstuffed plot dooms these themes further. At two hours and forty nine minutes, the film radically shifts in plot making it seem like three or four movies crammed into one. Interstellar begins as a movie about an ecologically ravaged Earth, struggling for survival. With a radically reduced population mankind has become a people of Dust Bowl era farmers. With Cooper’s discovery of NASA, the film becomes about mankind’s potential salvation through a wormhole. A mission of survival soon yields to easily excised conspiracy thriller. Meanwhile back on Earth, Murph (Chastain), now fully grown, struggles to save humanity from her end. This divided focus drains the plot of momentum as it toggles back and forth between the ever changing Endurance mission and Murph’s efforts to solve the problem of extricating Earth’s population to safety. In the last act, Cooper joins the two plots together by journeying into the black and proving that love does in fact transcend time and space. Love transcends time and space? Fantastic. Glad a film studio spent 165 million dollars on that one.

            Due to his success with the Dark Knight trilogy and other films like Memento, Inception, and The Prestige Nolan had a rare opportunity in Hollywood, to make whatever movie he wanted. He put this freedom to work with dazzling visual effects and reminded us of the wonder and majesty of space.  He surrounded himself with a marvelous and overqualified cast. Instead of putting them to their best use, Nolan squandered them on a heavy handed, simplistic, and ultimately empty film. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Saints Woes Continue

            On Sunday, the Saints lost 41-10 to the Carolina Panthers. The Saints turned the ball over twice in the first quarter, leading to 10 Carolina points. The game also further highlighted the epic struggles of the Saints defense this season. They allowed 271 rushing yards. Carolina rushers ran the ball for forty times for an average of 6.8 yards per rush. Injured Panthers quarterback Cam Newton went 21-33 for 226 yards with 3 touchdown passes. He also contributed 83 yards on the ground in 12 carries and a rushing TD. The game was an embarrassing performance for a team that entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations.

The Aints are Back 
             We’ve previously chronicled the Saints offseason plan and their struggles earlier this season. As the season has progressed, the Saints defensive woes have increased. Indeed this season, they seem to have found different ways to lose. They lost close games to Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco, and Cleveland with a combined point differential of -9. They’ve lost blow-outs to the Cowboys, Bengals and now Carolina with a combined point differential of -69. And they’ve also had some competitive wins over the Packers and Steelers. The continuing poor play of the defense has placed added stress on the offense. It seems every game the Saints need at least 30 points to have a chance of winning. As we’ve discussed earlier this year, the lack of a consistent deep threat has hindered the offense. Without the potential for big plays, the Saints lack the ability to rack up leads, create extra possessions, and put pressure on opponents.

Sean Payton yelling at defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, an all too familiar sight. 
              Apart from a few years of scattered success, the Saints have largely struggled on defense in the Sean Payton era. The coordinators under Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have shared similar defensive philosophies—favoring blitz heavy schemes, designed to pressure opposing quarterbacks into committing turnovers. This defensive philosophy pairs well with the aggressive and pass heavy offenses favored by Payton and executed by quarterback Drew Brees.  The chart below highlights the Saints struggles on defense. (DVOA is explained here. In terms of defense, negative DVOAs are best.)

DVOA (rank)
Pass DVOA (rank)
Run DVOA (rank)
Gary Gibbs
4.2% (22)
6.1% (20)
2.0% (21)
Gary Gibbs
12.1% (30)
27.9% (32)
-8.6% (11)
Gary Gibbs
7.8% (26)
15.1% (23)
-0.4% (22)
Gregg Williams
-0.4% (17)
-4.8% (9)
4.8% (29)
Gregg Williams
-4.3% (10)
0.7% (10)
-9.5% (10)
Gregg Williams
10.2% (28)
16.7% (26)
-0.2% (21)
Steve Spagnuolo
14.8% (32)
20.8% (28)
7.1% (30)
Rob Ryan
-5.8% (10)
-9.2% (6)
-1.5% (20)
Rob Ryan
12.9% (31)
21.1% (27)
3.1% (29)

Since his hire in 2006, Payton has cycled through four defensive coordinators. His first, Garry Gibbs had coached the linebackers for the Dallas Cowboys while Payton worked as the offensive coordinator.  Gibbs had previously served as defensive coordinator at the University of Oklahoma under famed coach Barry Switzer. The job with the Saints represented his first time coordinating an NFL defense. After 2008, Payton shifted gears, hiring Gregg “If you cut off the head, the snake will die” Williams. Williams had extensive experience as a defensive coordinator and head coach. Throughout his career, he was known as an aggressive defensive coach, relying heavily on blitzes to generate pressure. Famed defensive coach Buddy Ryan (and father of current DC Rob Ryan) was one of his mentors. After the Bounty Gate scandal, Payton hired former Rams head coach and Giants defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo. Like his predecessor, Spagnuolo was best known for his aggressive and blitz heavy packages. He earned his head coaching gig in St. Louis by designing a scheme that helped the Giants pressure Tom Brady and beat the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Payton fired Spagnuolo after one disastrous season at helm and replaced him with another veteran coordinator, Rob Ryan. Ryan, the son of one time Gregg Williams mentor Buddy Ryan, also favors a blitz heavy defense. Buoyed by a strong pass defense in 2013, the Saints posted their best DVOA of the Payton era. This year, the defense has again fallen apart. 

In examining the Panthers-Saints game, announcers and reporters will focus on particular plays and players to highlight the struggles of the Saints defense. Players come and go. In light of the Saints persistent defensive shortcomings, it’s time to take a closer look at Payton and Loomis, the men responsible for hiring the defensive coaches and drafting the defensive players. We’ll look at these issues more in depth in future posts. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

New Davis Rogan CD

          New Orleans musician and DGA favorite Davis Rogan has released a new CD titled, Davis Ex Machina. And if you take a close look at the credits you’ll find a familiar name: Doug Green. Doug served as an executive producer on the album. First a trial consultant, now a music producer, nobody knows what might be next.

Hey! I know that guy! 
           Doug earned himself an executive producer credit by donating to the project through kickstarter—the online fundraising site. Doug was one of one hundred and forty nine backers who supported Davis’s project. Combined they raised $20,225 to fund the album. Backers for the project came from across the United States and even the world. Residents of San Francisco, Chicago, Oxford, Mississippi, and Pittsburgh gave to the project. Internationally Davis received financial support from Sweden, Belgium, France, and Australia. His appeal is truly international in scope. Perhaps Davis’s appeal stems from his biography on the website, where he described himself as having “The wit, irony, and self-deprecation echo Randy Newman, but the wry observations about life, humanity, and New Orleans are uniquely his.”

The New Album 

Rogan himself describes Davis Ex Machina this way: “The songs, about a dozen of them, are also very clever… I will let my work to date, the three albums as the band All That and two as DAVIS, be a guidepost for what the new recording will sound like. If you like what I’ve done so far, you’re gonna love the new one.” The CD includes fourteen tracks. For the album, Davis rounded up his usual band of suspects. Bass player Jimbo Walsh has played with Davis since 2001. Charlie Kohlmeyer plays the drums, a job he has held since 2007. Mark Levron and Travis Blotsky the trumpeter and saxophonist, have been with the band for five and three years. They all work professionally as musicians.

Esplanade Studios in Treme 

The album was recorded at Esplanade Studios in New Orleans. The studio opened in 2013 in the Treme, the famed New Orleans neighborhood, and namesake of the HBO series. The studio is located in a 1920s church that encompasses 14,000 square feet. The church was heavily damaged in Hurricane Katrina and remained vacant since 2005. Inside the church is a large pipe organ, donated by robber baron and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The storm damaged the organ and efforts are underway to restore it to working condition. Misha Kachkachishvili, the owner of the studio, engineered, mixed, and mastered the album.  Apart from Davis, the studio also has an impressive list of clients including: Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Rebirth Brass Band, Harry Connick Jr., and Dr. John.

Also as a special bonus, Davis will be performing an original song titled, “Jury Consultant Blues.” He will premiere the song at the Crawfish Boil in March. This year’s boil will be held on March 14th, at Winos and Tacos in Covington, Louisiana. If you would like to purchase the CD, it is available for sale at the Louisiana Music Factory online