Movies This Week: December 19-24, 2014

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 Foxcatcher

With Christmas around the bend, there's not nearly as much specialty programming from now until the end of the year, but there's still some great screenings worth mentioning. The Austin Film Society will be closing out 2014 with Cracking Up, a 1983 comedy from Jerry Lewis in 35mm. Bryan Connolly will be on hand for a post-film discussion for the showings tonight and again on Sunday evening.

In terms of the rest of the week in specialty screenings, they are pretty exclusively Christmas-themed. The Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter has free daily screenings of Arthur Christmas for Alamo Kids Club and Home Alone pizza parties on Sunday and Tuesday (which also will happen at the Alamo Lakeline). The Alamo Ritz has a digital restoration of Meet Me In St. Louis on Saturday and Sunday for Broadway Brunch, Gremlins on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, Die Hard in 35mm from Sunday through Wednesday for daily shows, the bizarre Finnish film Rare Exports on Sunday and Tuesday and John Ford's Christmas classic Donovan's Reef starring John Wayne on Monday night. There are also a few quote-along screenings again this week of Love Actually and Elf.

The Alamo Village has Muppet Christmas Carol for free daily Alamo Kids Club screenings each morning and is also giving you one more shot for a digital restoration of It's A Wonderful Life on Wednesday. Both the Alamo South Lamar and Lakeline locations have A Christmas Story with a Chinese dinner on Monday while it also plays again on Wednesday only at Lamar. 

Review: Annie

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Rose Byrne and Quvenzhané Wallis take to a tabletop in Annie

Let me preface this review by acknowledging my lifelong attachment to the 1982 movie Annie. That movie's soundtrack was one of the few original cassettes my sister and I as small kids owned that wasn't a copy my dad recorded off records checked out from the library (yes, I am totally dating myself here).  I had all the songs memorized as a kid, and still remember most of the lyrics today to "Dumb Dog," "You're Never Fully Dressed (Without a Smile)," "Maybe," "Tomorrow"... you get the idea. I came in skeptical of the remake/new take. If my musical-loving friend hadn't asked me to get her into the preview screening, I might have skipped the whole thing. And that would have been a shame.

This 2014 version caused much hullabaloo before production even began as charmer Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) was cast in the title role. Racists took to social media to whine about a black actress playing Annie, others applauded the forward-thinking of the casting, and I just wondered if she could sing. After seeing the film I will tell you, dear reader, she can sing -- with a little help from autotune.

Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesThe greatest adventure may be what lies ahead, but The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the end of the road for Peter Jackson's time in Middle Earth. The 13 years since the release of The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring have seen the growth of the franchise into an international phenomenon while the digital filmmaking magic used in its creation has become commonplace in the industry, expanded and improved.

I was fortunate to have the chance to wait and see the presentation during the private Ain't It Cool Butt-numb-a-thon event, where it played in the HFR 48 frames per second but in 2D, not 3D projection -- the first (and perhaps only) time the film was screened for an audience with this kind of projection in the United States. While I find HFR with 3D to be headache-inducing, I quickly adjusted to the higher frame rate when it was 2D.

This third installment is appropriately named. Most of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is concerned with events that play out as different races converge to loot the treasure under the mountain after the death of Smaug. But after the buildup over two previous films, the tumultous battle with the dragon, the climax of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel becomes merely an opening sequence here to set the stage for events that don't make much logical sense.

Thorin, leader of the company of dwarves, has found himself returned to his home inside the mountain and sitting atop a pile of gold ... and suddenly loses his sense of right and wrong, succumbing to a mysterious "dragon sickness" within the span of about 5 minutes it takes Smaug to fly out of the mountain and start burning everything in sight. His sudden onset of avarice leads him, like a drug addict, to break his promises, alienate his friends, and cost him that which he holds most dear. Meanwhile, the orcs who have been chasing the company throughout the three films are converging on the mountain with an overwhelming force.

Review: Foxcatcher

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Foxcatcher

If you're rich, they call you eccentric instead of crazy.

John du Pont was plenty rich enough to be called eccentric. An heir to the du Pont family fortune, he had wealth almost beyond imagination, a fortune so intimidating that those who knew him -- especially anyone dependant on his philanthropy -- didn't dare call him insane.

Foxcatcher, however, dares calls him insane; it pulls no punches in its depiction of his erratic behavior and sometimes terrifying mental instability. With a brilliant performance by Steve Carell as John (by far the best of Carell's career), the film paints him as a deeply troubled man whose wealth couldn't buy him self esteem or sanity.

Based on a true story, Foxcatcher focuses on John's interest in wrestling. (He led an eclectic life; he also was a philatelist and accomplished ornithologist.) As the film opens in 1987, John recruits Olympic wrestling gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) for a wrestling team he hopes will compete in the 1988 Olympics. The team, named Foxcatcher after the du Pont family's thoroughbred racing stable, trains at a state-of-the-art facility John built on his Pennsylvania farm.

Other Worlds Austin Interview: 'Apt 3D' Filmmakers/Stars

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Zack Imbrogno and Maxxe Sternbaum

The Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival closed out its inaugural event with the world premiere of Apt 3D, a psychological thriller set in New York in the dead of winter. Newly transplanted couple Erin (Maxxe Sternbaum) and Ben (Zack Imbrogno) struggle with new confining environs, unsure of what is imaginary and what may be real -- and whether their neighbors are the source of the enigma.

Battling fears and their own concerns they might be imagining things, the couple's relationship starts to fracture. However, as they look further into what happened to Ben's sister, the apartment's previous resident, they begin to wonder if the other residents of this complex might have it out for them.

I met with the lead actors the day after the screening to talk about Apt 3D -- in addition to starring in this film, Imbrogno wrote and co-directed and Sternbaum edited. They spoke about the writing process as well as the challenges of making their first feature film, as well as how the film reflected their own time in New York City.

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: White Reindeer

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white reindeer

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Traditionally upbeat Christmas movies can be comforting, but there's something to be said for exploring the post-magic realm of holiday cinema. Characters with a melancholy streak and who are too cynical to be taken in by sparkly lights and tra-la-la-ing are pretty interesting to watch, and if you're in that kind of mood, too, then you should check out White Reindeer, which screened at SXSW in 2013.

Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) starts out as the opposite of a Scrooge; she's a realtor working in the Washington, D.C. area, excited for Christmas and for life in general. She has a meteorologist husband, they have important, exciting plans, and they are nice people who say "anyhoo" and buy each other the perfect Christmas gifts.

Very early in the movie, though, things take a completely unfestive turn. Suzanne finds herself alone and completely confused about what she should do with herself, and in terms of Chrismas, she is a bundle of misfiring impulses and misplaced emotions. Her once-favorite holiday has had all the joy pummeled out of it a few days before the 25th, and she's now left to endure everyone's else's merriment.

Other Worlds Austin Review: Time Lapse

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The next time I yell at my roommate for not washing the dishes I'll think of Time Lapse, which recently won the feature audience award at the inaugural Other Worlds Austin science-fiction movie festival. It made me realize that my roommate problems could be a whole lot worse.

The movie's about three twentysomethings with their heads in the clouds -- think The Real World meets a Tales From The Crypt version of Friends. There's Finn (my man Matt O'Leary), the sensitive painter; his doting would-be writer girlfriend Callie (Danielle Panabaker); and gambling addict bad boy Jasper (George Finn).

All appears to be well, at least stable, for our merry band of misfits, until the day Finn -- who's financially supporting himself as the apartment's manager -- goes to check on a mysterious elderly tenant and discovers a large, steampunk-esque camera pointed at his living-room window. He soon discovers that this machine takes Polaroids that show what will happen in the next 24 hours. The body of the tenant is found decomposing in his onsite storage unit.

Movies This Week: December 12-18, 2014

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Wild

Most of the specialty screenings around town this week are related in some form or another to Christmas. The Alamo Drafthouse Ritz is giving you multiple ways to enjoy Home Alone on the big screen, including all-you-can-eat pizza parties along with standard showings and quote-along versions. There are also standard and quote along screenings to choose from of Elf and Love Actually, while Tough Guy Cinema has 35mm showings of Die Hard on Sunday and Tuesday. Music Monday is showing a brand new documentary called Jingle Bell Rocks about people who are obsessed with Christmas music and even Terror Tuesday is getting into the spirit with Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Alamo Lakeline and Alamo Slaughter are screening a digital restoration of It's A Wonderful Life on Saturday and Sunday and A Christmas Story will be featured as a quote-along screening that comes with a Chinese dinner at Alamo Slaughter on Monday before it heads to the Alamo Village on Thursday. The Paramount Theatre has the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol in a double feature with White Christmas on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings -- both films are presented in 35mm. 

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings

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Exodus: Gods and KingsCecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic The Ten Commandments is in no danger of being dethroned by this week's Ridley Scott-directed movie Exodus: Gods and Kings. This film has so many problems, I don't know where to start throwing the blame. Let's call this one (scripted by the brilliant team behind Tower Heist) the worst story that should never be told.

Perhaps we should start with the whitewashing of its cast. Christian Bale picks up Charlton Heston's sword as Moses, the slave prince. The central conflict is set up between him and Joel Edgerton's Rameses as a prophecy hints the adopted Moses might one day take his place as leader. Joining them are Sigourney Weaver who has no more than two lines as Rameses' mother and John Turturro as the wise old Pharoah Seti. I respect and admire Turturro's acting, but still have to suppress a chuckle that he has gone from playing "The Jesus" in The Big Lebowski to playing the Pharoah here. It is sad though that Turturro among the cast has the most gravitas, given the weight Heston and Yul Brynner previously brought to their roles.

Where Exodus really lost me, however, was not the cast but the script. In spite of the prophecy from the beginning of the film, it attempts to explain away the biblical story as the result of natural phenomena. God appears to Moses in the form of a creepy young boy only he can see as a result of a head injury. The plagues, which are rushed on and off-screen so quickly they hardly register, result from silt caused by the Nile flooding --which kills the fish, drives frogs out of the water, spawns disease. Even the parting of the Red Sea is presented as the result of an unnatural tide that occurs when a comet passes too close overhead. This conceit is a very half-assed attempt to rationalize events, which makes no attempt to explain the final plague.

All are naturally-occurring phenomena, but when presented as such, it takes away the magic and leaves a hollow emptiness where a greater story once stood. Exodus: Gods and Kings looks great with contemporary visual effects, but we're all familiar with the story, and this attempt to reimagine it with the spin of realism does it no favors.

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: Mixed Nuts

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Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

The sadly forgotten Christmas comedy Mixed Nuts (1994) has been a holiday viewing tradition for me since its release 20 years ago. Co-written and directed by Nora Ephron from the earlier French film Le père Noël est une ordure (1982), Mixed Nuts bears almost no resemblance to the director's more famous romantic comedies. The holiday farce deals with the staff of a Los Angeles suicide hotline (Steve Martin, Madeline Kahn, Rita Wilson) who must contend with a bickering pair of expectant parents (Anthony Lapaglia, Juliette Lewis), a melancholy cross-dresser (Liev Schrieber), a quirky ukulele player (Adam Sandler) and other assorted characters as they face eviction as well as a serial killer known as The Seaside Strangler on Christmas Eve.

So much of Mixed Nuts is the exact opposite of what comprises the standard holiday movie, such as the dark flavor of comedy and the sunny Los Angeles setting (Christmas actually happens there too). And while plenty of Christmas movies tend to draw inspiration from Norman Rockwell, Mixed Nuts goes against the grain by being a film populated with individuals who would never be found in a Rockwell painting. These are people who, for one reason or another, dread the holidays. In that sense, Mixed Nuts is perhaps one of the most relatable and sympathetic holiday films in existence; a love letter for the individual who feels something is lacking for them during this time of the year. As Martin's character puts it: "Christmas is a time when you look at your life through a magnifying glass, and everything you don't have suddenly seems overwhelming."

That's not to say that Mixed Nuts is a depressing movie. In fact, nothing is further from the truth. The selection of holiday songs are highly enjoyable (including Amy Grant's stunning "The Night Before Christmas" which closes the film), the large comedic cast is fun to watch, the comedy, while dark, is plentiful and the film's climax opts for the hopeful, rather than the sentimental. All in all, Mixed Nuts is prime holiday viewing, even it does come in unconventional wrapping.

Where to watch: Mixed Nuts is available on DVD, Amazon Instant Video and in Austin, at Vulcan Video North.

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