1. Craig’s Listing
It doesn’t take anything away from Craig Watkins’s accomplishments as district attorney of Dallas County—since he won election in 2006, his office has exonerated 33 prisoners, some of whom had been incarcerated for decades—to say that he has been very lucky. A Democrat, he was swept into office on a wave of anti-Bush sentiment, becoming the first black DA in Texas history. His elevation to the role of Great Exonerator was possible because his office is in one of the few counties in the country that have saved old crime-scene evidence, giving the wrongfully convicted the stuff to prove their claims (though here he partly made his own luck, by actively seeking out dubious convictions). And he has managed to sidestep various embarrassing moments, such as having his law license suspended early in his tenure because of unpaid dues.
In March it looked like Watkins’s luck was about to run out when he was cited for contempt of court after he refused to testify about whether he had helped his friend and supporter Lisa Blue Baron by bringing charges against a man she was suing. But then, in August, a Republican judge threw the citation out. Watkins (and his allies) breathed a sigh of relief. Republicans, though, saw an opening. Tom Nowak, the only Republican who has announced for the 2014 DA’s election, is already crowing on Facebook about “Corrupt Craig Watkins” and his “INCOMPETENCE!” (Nowak worked as a prosecutor under Watkins until he was fired in 2010 after attending a Republican watch party on election night; Watkins says the firing wasn’t politically motivated.) And that sort of smack talk just might work. Watkins won both of his elections by a handful of votes—6,980 in 2006 and 5,119 in 2010. If Nowak can paint Watkins as just another self-serving politician, that handful of votes could easily swing his way. And the Great Exonerator would lose his final appeal. —Michael Hall
2. Rodriguez Kills
Although he’s long been a favorite of the fan-boy set, the Austin-based writer-director Robert Rodriguez was shrugged off by serious film critics—until, that is, he released Machete (2010), a freewheeling thriller about a former Mexican federale (Danny Trejo) seeking vengeance against a corrupt Texas politician (Robert De Niro). It was so violent, funny, and politically charged that critics couldn’t decide if it was Rodriguez’s most gratuitous effort yet or a gonzo treatise on the broken state of race relations in America. On October 11, Rodriguez returns with a sequel, Machete Kills, which offers us a chance to look back at some of the all-over-the-map reactions to the first film.
“Rodriguez thickens the stock with a meta-political, quasi-revolutionary message about America’s recent populist penchant for xenophobia dressed up as concern for homeland security. How could you not love such an aromatic PoMo bouillabaisse?” —Tirdad Derakhshani, Philadelphia Inquirer
“Steven ‘Stay Puft’ Seagal and Lindsay Lohan, who has an obvious body double in her boob shots and looks about 40 years old, come off the worst. I never thought the day would come when I wanted to watch Don Johnson more than Robert De Niro.” —David Edelstein, New York
“The feature Machete does not qualify for a grant from the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program. The authority for this determination is based on Texas Government Code #485.022(e), which reads in part, ‘The office is not required to act on any grant application and may deny an application because of inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion.’ ” —Carol Pirie, deputy director of the Texas Film Commission
“Though Machete is not the perfect vehicle to raise sociopolitical consciousness in the masses, I argue it does succeed in accomplishing the ‘re-racing’ of the immigration issue. So often immigration debates claim not to be about race, but this time people had to talk about skin color, language, and culture as factors in anti-immigrant sentiment because Machete uses exaggeration and overtness to make very clear that race and migration are inexplicably connected. A factor inherent to this discussion is how Chican@/Latin@ people fit into racial categories, which is an important part of identification, community,solidarity, and coalition-building.” —Marina Wood, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
3. Single-Person Theory
How do you recount a historic event when it’s already been explored from seemingly every possible angle? In the new feature film Parkland (opening October 4), writer-director Peter Landesman dispenses with breathless conspiracy theories and dewy Camelot-era mythmaking and instead tells the story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy as it was experienced by a group of ordinary people in Dallas. We meet the in-over-his-head surgical resident (Zac Efron) who works frantically to revive Kennedy at Parkland Memorial Hospital; the FBI agent (Ron Livingston) who comes to the horrifying realization that, just weeks earlier, he allowed Lee Harvey Oswald to slip through his fingers; and the clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who unexpectedly finds himself in possession of a film of the killing. Viewers searching for grand pronouncements about the assassination will likely be disappointed; the fleet, 93-minute movie—which was produced by Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton, among others—is just a collection of alternately poignant and surreal vignettes. But in its attention to previously overlooked detail—watch out for the harrowing sequence where a group of Secret Service agents works desperately to jam the president’s coffin onto Air Force One—Parkland reminds us of something that our high school textbooks tend to miss: that the course of human history gets altered one person at a time. —Christopher Kelly
4. Workingman’s Denim
When Austin power trio White Denim started out seven years ago, they were incubating something unusual: a music-nerd fusion with roots in the excesses of seventies rock acts like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. White Denim made for a lousy jam band, though. They were too hyperkinetic and fond of tangled rhythms to settle for stoned grooves and endless solos. And beneath their jumble were actual songs, which James Petralli, a dynamic singer, could have put over the top if the band had ever managed to focus. Good news. Despite the trippy title, Corsicana Lemonade (Downtown Records), White Denim’s fifth album, is their most song-oriented record to date. The band—now a quartet since they added a second guitarist in 2010—recorded mostly live in the studio, creating a more synchronous vibe. And, oddly, a slicker one. Jim Vollentine (who produced all but two tracks) and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (who produced the rest and mixed the album) lay on the same mildly edgy gloss that’s worked so well for the Black Keys. The band riffs powerfully, but something gets lost in translation: the guitars glisten more than bite. It’s when they break through the haze (on songs like “Pretty Green” and “Limited by Stature”) that the band truly ignites. —Jeff McCord