Beware the Ides of March
(unless you have some Oscar-catch-up viewing to do this weekend)
Review by Ken Burke Non-Stop
There are plot holes here that you could fly a plane through, but if you just enjoy the ride it’s a great action movie with excellent tension and some nice surprises at times.
A documentary on the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson, a crucial sub-atomic element necessary for matter to form; a bit geared for physicists, though.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting. But please be aware that the links we recommend in our reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge. Other overall notations for this blog may be found at Two Guys in the Dark homepage. Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.]
Over the last couple of weeks and into the next 2 as well I’ll admit that I haven’t been (and won't be) to the movie houses very much (thank heavens I’m now on a couple of critics’ press screening lists so that I’ve still got something to write about) because instead I’ve seen some live theater (among those shows, if you’re anywhere near Berkeley, CA I highly recommend The House That Will Not Stand [about free Black women in early 19th-century New Orleans and the “almost-married” situations they shared with prominent White men, usually officially married to someone else; written by Marcus Gardley, directed by Patricia McGregor, playing through March 23, 2014) and have been planning a couple of upcoming trips (one to Hearst Castle in San Simeon, CA to see if the ghosts of either Hearst or Charles Foster Kane might be lurking around somewhere [or if the ghosts of Hearst and Orson Welles are still battling each other] and the other to Phoenix, but only to see my beloved Oakland A’s in Spring Training not to support the sociopolitical agenda of many of Arizona’s government officials and their loyal constituents). A further film-going-consideration for me is that while I’m glad to see that a lot of the Oscar-contenders are still playing on many screens gathering in a bit more of an audience I’ve seen all these and am not too interested in most of what’s turning up the heat at the ticket counters (300: Rise of an Empire [Noam Murro], Mr. Peabody & Sherman [Rob Minkoff]—both with very strong openings last weekend—Son of God [Christopher (←seems appropriate) Spencer]—no thanks; I’m obviously not devout enough so I’ll wait for Noah [Darren Aronofsky], opening on March 28, 2014—Ride Along [Tim Story]—probably funny within a certain strain of humor but beyond just appreciating the comic turns of Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, and John Leguizamo, I think I’ve seen enough of this kind of thing already—RoboCop [Jose Padilha] and About Last Night [Steve Pink]—I need a break as well from remakes, but I do wish Kevin Hart well in his dual successes, further establishing his bankable movie career—Pompeii [Paul W.S. Anderson]—I thought that disaster movies peaked out in the 1970s). So, that left Non-Stop (Jaune Collet-Serra) as a possibility, not only because it got a lot of relatively-positive-press despite being deemed a “tense but ludicrous cat-and-mouse thriller” (Chris Nashawaty in Entertainment Weekly; read more from him if you like) and other such backhanded-compliments in most reviews that I’ve read but also because if I’m going to indulge in something that’s probably way too familiar from past versions (Airport [George Seaton]—and its several sequels, 1975-1979—Air Force One [Wolfgang Petersen, 1997], Snakes on a Plane [David R. Ellis, 2006], I’m So Excited [Pedro Almodóvar, 2013—review in our August 8, 2013 posting], etc.) I haven’t seen a good will-this-airplane-be-able-to-land-before-it-crashes-plot in awhile, so off I went into the unfriendly skies under the protection of distraught alcoholic—yet my first line of protection—federal Air Marshal Bill Marks (Liam Neeson), a guy with so much integrity that he uses duct tape to disable the smoke detector in the lavatory so that he can ease his tensions with a cigarette. You’ve probably seen enough previews of Non-Stop by now to know that while protecting the stability of a transatlantic flight from New York to London Bill is contacted by a terrorist on board who threatens to kill someone every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred into a secret account (which turns out to have Marks’ name on it) so once Bill is forced to fight to the death with his fellow marshal, Jack Hammond (Anson Mount)—carrying a briefcase full of cocaine (because, as always in circumstances such as these, Jack “needs the money”)—he realizes that this is no prank, then goes on the warpath in a well-constructed-cinematic-vehicle, which uses the confined spaces of the jumbo jet’s cabins and the energized application of the moving camera to add further action to Bill’s trips up and down the aisles to find out who’s behind this dastardly plot even as the pilot and a passenger soon join the ranks of the departed, with us left to wonder who’s masterminding this seemingly-impossible-situation.
At one point suspicion even turns to one of the few onboard that Bill has chosen to trust, fellow-first-class-flier, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore)—along with flight attendant Nancy Hoffman (Michelle Dockery), co-pilot Kyle Rice (Jason Butler Harner), and obvious-suspect-extraordinaire (Why? Because he’s a Muslim on an airplane!), Dr. Fahim Nasir (Omar Metwally). However, all that’s just to distract us, along with the plot complication that Marks has been determined by ground control to be a hijacker so our troubled jet soon has a military escort who threaten to open fire if there’s any deviation from the rapidly-evolving-response-directives, despite Bill’s insistence on his innocence and his need to get the plane to a lower altitude to minimize what will be dangerous damage to the fuselage when the terrorist’s bomb detonates—What? Surely you’re not surprised that the tension ante is upped with a ticking bomb, are you? OK, I’ll accept your surprise and I won’t call you “Shirley” anymore (to steal an obvious joke from a huge package of obvious jokes about air-travel-disasters, Airplane [Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, 1980], the hilarious parody of the Airport series [here’s a collage of some typical scenes where sanity and logic are sacrificed for maximum silliness])—I also assume that Non-Stop’s been playing long enough that you’ve had a chance to see it by now and that my standard Spoiler Alert at the beginning of this post has protected you from any massive disappointment in my casual elaboration of plot points, but even if not I think you know what you’re in for when you buy into something as obvious as this so you might as well read on to see what else I can do to ruin it for you if for some reason I’m actually encouraging you to blow some bucks on this well-paced-but-highly-illogical-diversion, so read on if you choose. Actually, the most revealing other plot point I can offer now is the identity of the real terrorist(s), who turn out to be Tom Bowen (Scoot [Born in Dallas; how else do you think he got a name like that unless he’s a Southern boy? He admits it came from his father who started calling him “Scooter” at about age 2 because “I used to scoot around on my butt”] McNairy), a schoolteacher, and Zack White (Nate Parker), a cellphone programmer, the former an initial suspect but then cleared by Marks and the latter who works in collaboration with Marks to locate the phone being used to send messages to Bill, but that was after Bowen had quickly passed it off unknowingly to another passenger who seemed to be the wanted man until he suddenly died while in custody to become the 3rd victim of the every-20-minutes-threat. It turns out that these guys are disillusioned soldiers, frustrated that their time on combat duty in the expanded-Middle-East seems to have accomplished nothing, just as they feel that current security measures have gotten too lax as the memory of 9/11/2001 begins to fade so they’ve set up this destruction plot in order to frame Marks and bring about better command of the air (how they know so much about his personal history I'm not quite sure).
Just to finish out the plot details in case you’ve now decided to invest your seat money on something else (there are lots of better options, including the 3 that I reviewed last week—Visitors [Godfrey Reggio], The Lunchbox [Ritesh Batra], and Omar [Hany Abu-Assad]—if you can find any of them because they’re not nearly as available as Non-Stop nor any of the others that I’ve declined to see recently, with the first 2 seemingly playing in only 13 theatres each nationwide and Omar not even breaking Box Office Mojo’s tally of the 97 highest-domestic-grosses of last weekend—and I can promise you won’t even get Non-Stop for free on any flight anywhere) I’ll also note the bomb is buried under the cocaine in Marshal Hammomd’s briefcase but apparently is so well constructed that it can’t be disarmed; it does explode blowing a hole near the tail that was buffered as much as possible by Marks’ strategy of piling all of the luggage on top of it to minimize damage to the rest of the aircraft; and Ms. Summers—innocent after all, despite her sultry-blasé-attitude—has a heart condition that can bring on sudden death at any minute so that even as she and Marks stroll down the tarmac in Iceland (after a seat-of-his-pants-solo-emergency-landing-victory by co-pilot Rice, despite coming in hard with a heavily-damaged-airplane) toward the “beginning of a beautiful friendship,” she could be gone tomorrow so don’t expect any sequels here. (Not that such would be likely anyway—despite a healthy $52.5 million take for Non-Stop after just 2 weeks, which has already covered its budget costs—given the ongoing mystery/tragedy of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, still missing as I write this and likely cooling any interest in immediate airplane-in-trouble-stories unless someone decides to resurrect that old Twilight Zone “The Odyssey of Flight 33” episode [original airdate February 24, 1961] about a jet liner that came upon a storm that sent the plane back into the days of the dinosaurs, then to 1939 where there was no airport capable of their landing so they motored back up into the sky in hopes of somehow reaching the present again without viewers knowing the fate of this star-crossed flight [although if the format were expanded into a film I’m sure there’d be some present-day-scene where excavation of some long-ago-time turns up inexplicable metal debris that looks strangely like the wings of an airliner, prompting theories of an extra-terrestrial visit.)
OK, while admitting that Non-Stop has a lot of effective technique, sustains its suspense through some well-planned-plot-diversions, and continues to showcase aging-actor Neeson’s action-movie credentials, let’s not let this one fly off without some commentary on script decisions that undermine the credibility of the concept even if they can be temporarily dismissed while the “non-stop” action keeps hurtling toward you. Let’s begin with the most obvious: how did Marshall Hammond get aboard with a bomb in his briefcase? One of my neighbors saw a screening with a friend who’s a federal agent and he noted that while these marshals go through a different boarding screening than the passengers (and thereby justify their weapons, I’m sure) the components of a bomb powerful enough to disable an airplane wouldn’t escape unnoticed (after all, flashing back to 9/11, we’re not talking about the relatively simple stashing of box-cutters onboard by ground-crew-accomplices to be used later as weapons; the smuggle here should have set off immediate alerts in any normal security process). On that point, what I got of Marshall Hammond’s dialogue is that he was previously contacted by Bowen (who actually met with him on the flight before messages started coming into Marks’ phone), but I have to assume that it was somehow in connection with the “red-herring” transport of the cocaine, not the destruction of the plane; however, beyond assumption, I’m not clear at all what these 2 knew of each other. I also have to assume that Bowen is a good enough pickpocket to have been able to slip his phone into the jacket of the sucker who not only gets to be the assumed-terrorist (for a brief few minutes before he suddenly dies), as well as prick his victim with a tiny-poison-laden-dart, all while having his hands bound in front of him with more of Marks’ ever-ready duct tape. However, I’m still not sure (or can’t remember) what led Marks to remove part of the wall panel in the first-class-restroom which allowed him to find the small hole through which another poison dart was used to dispatch the pilot, but even more curious to me is who shot that dart—suspicion is cast upon Jen but we know in retrospect that it wasn’t her— Bowen never seems to have left the coach cabin, so I have to assume that White did it at some point because he’s sitting in first class (even if so, the first round of text exchanges between Marks and Bowen includes Bowen’s awareness of that first Marks’ cigarette in that same forward restroom so how did the killer—for plot purposes, I’ll call him that but Marks kills also, first Hammond who attacks Bill to keep him from revealing the cocaine smuggling, then Bowen in a gun battle not long before the bomb detonates—know about this, unless Marks’ bad habits [such as guzzling some liquor in his car just before the flight departed] are well-known to this meticulously-planning-mastermind [true, Bill’s alcoholism seems to be known to Nancy, as he asks for a gin and tonic but receives just a bottle of water, although this may just be because he’s a known marshal who shouldn’t be drinking while on duty]). I guess I’ll just have to accept the gunfire exchanges between Banks and Bowen as the necessary actions of desperate men despite their great danger in puncturing the cabin walls or windows, creating a deadly suction into the surrounding outside airspace (Who could forget the climax of Goldfinger [Guy Hamilton, 1964] when James Bond’s nemesis meets his fate in this ungainly manner?), especially given that Bowen had already double-crossed his partner with the intention of destroying the airplane by any means available in order to pin the disaster on Marks, while gullible White had assumed they’d somehow escape to reclaim the ransom money that was finally deposited into that secret account in an attempt by the negotiators to get Marks to abort “his” destructive plans, but it’s damn lucky for all concerned that the adrenaline was overwhelming everything else in Bill’s system, enabling him to aim true, taking out Bowen with a perfect shot to the head with no ricocheting otherwise through the airplane.
I also have to wonder why Bill ever made it into the Air Marshal ranks (given his fear of takeoffs on every flight) and how he stayed there given what’s clearly his depressed state over the death of his daughter some years ago (She was 8 at the time; in the initial conversation between Bill and Jen he says she’s 17, so has it really been that many years? Maybe so, given that his despondency led to divorce, discharge from the police force, then joining the Air Marshals, all of which must have taken some years from his life.) and the apparent knowledge within the flying community about his drinking problems (considerably more serious than the directionality-dislocations suffered by Ted Striker [Robert Hays] in those Airplane clips). Still, if we become too focused on all of the things that would seem to unravel Non-Stop then we’d be depriving ourselves of an effective thrill-ride that properly shakes us up, then lets us out with little damage done to our psyches (except maybe reinforcing in the flight-phobic their justifications for taking the train next time—and, by the way, don’t get caught up in post-Oscar-hubbub when you find newly-crowned-Best-Supporting-Actress Lupita Nyong’o [for 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)] in the credits for Non-Stop [as flight attendant Gwen Lloyd] because it’s a minor, inconsequential role). There’s not much happening in Non-Stop that will even be remembered by the time baseball season starts in a couple of weeks, but if you need a short break from the mundane, you could do worse than this. As for a musical metaphor to bring us back safely to terra firma, how about a somewhat-silly-connection, with The Beatles’ “Fixing a Hole” (from the 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—named by Rolling Stone as the Greatest Album of All-Time) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flGdFvkjMPU, given that the airliner in Non-Stop needs major repairs (but still at a lower cost for “British Aqualantic” than the [likely bogus] promise Bill was making of free flights anywhere for a year if the hostile passengers would just shut up and cooperate with him), Bill needs to fix some holes in his own head where “the rain gets in” so it can “stop [his] mind from wandering where it will go,” and Non-Stop’s plot definitely could use some hole-fixing, although if you got rid of all the absurdities I doubt you’d have enough left to make a movie, unless it was just an emotional drama about “I-feel-like-I’m-fixin’-to-die” Jen Summers and her frequent first-class-window-seat-flights to anywhere (I guess if you don’t know how much longer you’ll be able to spend your savings you might as well blow them on expensive travel where the drinks are free)—until she develops a short (?)-term romance with Nancy or Gwen. (Hey, this is the 21st century; who says the team-up has to be with a guy, even if those pilots do look dashing in their splendidly-appointed-uniforms.)
Some of you might think that scientists’ “uniforms” are dashing as well (if starched lab coats turn you on), but for those of you more enthralled with the arts and humanities you might want to consider a new documentary, Particle Fever (Mark Levinson), which celebrates the verification of the subnuclear particle known as the Higgs boson but attempts to do it in a manner that is accessible to those of us who would be daunted by a debate on the likelihood that existence is within the realm of supersymmetry (which attempts to explain the various difficulties within theoretical physics, although various phenomena show variance from this model) or a multiverse of parallel universes (which is a concept that seems too vast and sci-fi-like to truly comprehend or analyze when there’s still so much unknown about just the here-and-now-universe that we’re a mere molecule of—in a metaphorical sense, of course; although for those of you familiar with the cosmos of DC Comics you know that those publishers have played around with a multiverse concept for quite some time as a means of providing some logic and separation for their many superheroes, villains, etc. who’ve been constantly popping up since the 1930s, with all of them collapsed into just this astrological zone of ours during the “Crises on Infinite Earths” maxi-story in 1985, then drifting back and forth into and away from some version of a multiverse at various times since then whenever they need to reboot the characters in order to keep them as youngish adults to better appeal to the target demographic). Critical response to Particle Fever has been exceptionally positive so far (see the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic links far below, although note that as of this writing they’re based on few reviews apiece so you might want to check back later when more returns are in from the outlying precincts), with plenty of claims that even non-scientists can appreciate what’s going on here. I, however, have to take exception with this, because even as much as I appreciate any attempt to help us understand the vast complexities of the atomic and sub-atomic worlds (an interest I’ve developed in my post-college years in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps of my education, given that I never took any science course above the level of basic biology; I’m also interested in the macro aspects of physics, particularly attempts to understand what happened at the instant of the Big Bang and how to reconcile the various foundational forces of life as we know it [gravity, electromagnetism, the weak and strong forces that occur within atoms], but even Steven Hawking’s attempts to “simplify” understandings of Relativity and Black Holes continue to elude me as so much that exists beyond day-to-day-Newtonian-physics is just too contradictory to observed reality and common sense for me to grasp most of the time), I think that the non-science-lover will still remain a bit befuddled by Particle Fever, although the enthusiasm of the scientific community over the “proof” (as best we have of anything of this complex nature) of the existence of the Higgs boson is universal in their joy of discovery and confirmation. Many of the rest of us might have trouble being so joyful over a flood of data on a computer screen, but in the minds of those 10,000 from over 100 countries who contributed to this project and understand much more than I ever will about what these data mean I can find resonance in my own joy at the outcome of an election or a sporting event (where my rate of success is often as limited as was the progress of finding the Higgs, given that the first viable test of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC], a 17-mile-long, 7-story-high circle of technological complexity at Geneva, Switzerland’s CERN nuclear research center staffed by 3,000 physicists and engineers, came to a crashing halt in 2008, with no successful procedures until the following year, then a lengthy wait until July 4, 2012 for the probable confirmation of this elusive particle, followed by another year before the Higgs existence could be conclusively identified).
During the process of Particle Fever’s 99-minute running time we hear from a lot of the theoretical and applied scientists responsible for the concepts and actualization needed to give substance to this extremely tiny building block of the universe, the needed force-carrier of existence that allows other particles to coalesce into matter, from the super-small components of the atom to the monstrous planets that dwarf our Earth in size. We also get a big dose of on-screen-explanations from producer David Kaplan, Professor of Particle Physics at Johns Hopkins University (director Levinson is also a physicist, with a doctorate from UC Berkeley, so at least we’re assured that this filmmaking team understands their subject, even if it may be difficult to convey to those of us with less understanding of their discipline), a constant voice for the importance of this research in the minds of those who want to better comprehend the life we live and the forces behind it (although certain U.S. politicians [yes, Republicans] don’t seem to be in that group, given that funding for such a project, which was to have been based in Texas, was denied by Congress in 1993 based on proposed costs and lack of interest in such “scientific curiosity” with no immediate practical applications—however, there were concerns about the European collider as well, from scientists who were concerned that the experiments could create a Black Hole that would swallow up the Earth, so it's never been easy, from a financial nor procedural standpoint, to get this project properly in motion). Upon my initial viewing of Particle Fever I was intrigued by and interested in what it had to offer, although my notes show that by 51 min. in it was just beginning to get beyond the inner-circle-enthusiasm-content of the researchers into more intriguing questions such as why is the universe so big, as well as that fundamental debate about supersymmetry vs. multiverse (I truly hope no one finds anything I note here as constituting the type of plot-based Spoiler Alert that I felt compelled to note about Non-Stop, because there’s nothing to be found in this film that you couldn’t easily look up on the Internet—as I’ve done plenty of just in trying to write this review), so whether you’ll be able to flow along with Particle Fever’s content until well into its structure is not something I can predict. Instead, I’m going to do a disservice to theater owners showing this documentary by suggesting that instead of—or at least before—attending this film you go to a free 60-min. YouTube BBC video from early 2012, The Hunt for Higgs, which I find to be a more accessible approach to this dense topic, especially in its use of detailed explanations (including why the laws of science manifested in perfect symmetry would not lead to our existence, as well as much more detail on the existence of anti-matter/anti-forces and how this all leads to the manifestation of the universe in the mini-moments after the Big Bang) and graphics to unpack these complex concepts which are sorely, sadly, lacking in Particle Fever, but be aware that The Hunt for Higgs gets a bit difficult to follow at times as well although is still a lot more accessible to a non-physics-schooled-movie-viewer. Of course this new film from Levinson and Kaplan shows us the actual discovery of this particle, along with the satisfaction of Nobel Prize-winning Peter Higgs who theorized its existence back in 1964, but I predict you’ll still understand better what the big deal is about this vital Big-Bang-leftover (the LHC essentially simulates aspects of the beginning-of-the-universe-explosion by slamming protons moving at near the speed of light into each other, then examining the residue of the collisions) by watching the BBC film (any testimony one way or the other on this hypothesis is quite welcome and encouraged in the Comments option below); then, if you’ve got time a great follow-up would be the new 13-part Cosmos TV mini-series (a remake of the 1980 Carl Sagan version) on the Fox and National Geographic channels Sundays at 9pm PDT (check your local listings, please), which began with overview concepts on March 9, 2014, then continues on for the next 12 weeks, with—as I understand it—each episode devoted to the span of the universe’s roughly 14 billion years as understood with the metaphor of 1 month of an annual calendar where human existence occupies only a minute of that “year,” with our 30,000 years of some type of civilization lasting only the final 15 seconds. (How’s that for perspective?) By the way, regarding perspective, when the Higgs boson was finally recorded it was found to have a mass of 125 GeV (a measurement of mass is all I can say, which presents the Higgs as 125 times the weight of a proton in the core of an atom; beyond that, help yourself to available resources) which seems to put it at an existence position that could potentially defend either supersymmetry or a multiverse so stay tuned for the results of further experiments, providing—as one scientist explains—that the Higgs doesn’t somehow evolve into another state which would likely rip apart all life as we know it. I just wouldn’t want you to be caught off-guard by that change if you’ve got some refundable deposit you could get back before dissolving into photons.
Given any scale of consideration from bosons to multiverses, I can think of only one song for my closing musical metaphor to Particle Fever—silly again, in the mode of the one I chose for Non-Stop—Buddy Holly’s “It Doesn’t Matter Any More” at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=KOTv9j Y4X5E (released as his last U.S. Top 20 hit shortly after his February 3, 1959 death in an airplane crash—too bad he, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, and their pilot didn’t have Liam Neeson to help them out) because as all of those boson scientists explain to us, without the Higgs (the so-called “God particle” that binds all solids together) there would be no matter, so nothing that we know of the universe would be anything but the light energy of photons (just wanted to make sure that got that reference in the previous paragraph), therefore nothing would “matter.” But if you think any of this is still too esoteric, then wait until next week when I bring you Lars von Trier’s Nymphomania, Vol. 1 (2013), which is about as “down to earth”—as in “earthy,” as in non-stop-sex (even more than Blue Is the Warmest Color [Abdellatif Kechiche; review in our November 21, 2013 posting], although it's all heterosexual this time)—as you can get. Now that I have your attention about something more “penetrating” than colliding protons, I’ll sign off until I return, with advice that if you find yourself stiff with anticipation for that next review for more than 4 hours at a time you contact your doctor for immediate medical attention as well as watch Sesame Street for awhile to cool down.
If you’d like to know more about Non-Stop here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9x5VEbNm05I (7:15 of footage showing how various scenes are shot; no narration nor explanations, but it gives you a sense of how what you see on screen actually looks in the studio when it’s being shot)
If you’d like to know more about Particle Fever here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=heLyABte76U (Particle Fever producer and frequent narrator David Kaplan gives a 7:25 explanation of what’s going on with the elusive Higgs boson particle that helps other particles acquire mass, which is what gives existence to our universe; there’s no guarantee that he’s coming across all that clearly in this short video, but his explanation is very characteristic of the entire film of Particle Fever, if that helps you understand—or not—what’s going on in this sophisticated physics-based documentary)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.