Movies This Week: May 30-June 5, 2014

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 Chinese Puzzle

This weekend, the Austin Film Society has booked a 35mm print of Douglas Sirk's striking melodrama All That Heaven Allows for their new "Rebel Rebel" series at the Marchesa. One of my all-time favorites, the film screens tonight and Sunday afternoon. It is being released on Blu-ray next month from the fine folks at The Criterion Collection, but it's genuinely exciting to finally have a chance to finally see it projected on the big screen. On Monday evening, AFS is teaming up with The Nature Conservancy for a screening of Hanna Ranch, a documentary about a fourth-generation cattle ranch. Emily Hanna will be in attendance for the film. Powell and Pressburger's 1943 feature The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp is screening Thursday evening at the Marchesa. The screening kicks off a new Essential Cinema series in June, "Films Of World War I."

The Paramount Summer Classic Film Series is delivering special sing-along engagements of The Sound Of Music this weekend. Saturday night's evening screening is a special benefit for the AIDS Services of Austin and will be hosted by Rebecca Havemeyer! This screening is intended for an adult audience and will include a "fancy dress costume parade at intermission." Family-friendly sing-alongs will be on hand Sunday afternoon and evening. Tickets for all three showtimes are $15 and there are no passes or flix-tix accepted. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the Paramount brings us a double feature of films set during the Great Depression: The Grapes Of Wrath and Sullivan's Travels will both screen in 35mm prints. 

Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

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A Million Ways to Die in the West

Crassness, unbridled racism, toilet humor, these are all things one familiar with his work expects from Seth MacFarlane, creator of three quarters of Fox’s “animation domination” series with Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show as well as 2012’s runaway hit movie Ted. One also expects to laugh one’s ass off.

To my enormous disappointment, the laughs never came in A Million Ways to Die in the West, as I suffered through two hours that made MacFarlane’s disastrous night of hosting the Oscars seem wildly successful in comparison. This movie wasn’t him "not at his best." This was the depths of the dreck that didn’t make it out of the writers' room on his TV shows, the proverbial poo flung at a wall that failed to stick.

Perhaps MacFarlane was too busy writing, directing, acting in and producing his take on Blazing Saddles meets There’s Something About Mary to realize it was going to be this bad. Perhaps no one was around who could tell him. The real surprise is how many really big names attached themselves to this. Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman and Liam Neeson may have all been excited to work on this after the success of Ted. Several of these actors are friends of his who have worked with him before. Their enormous talents can’t save this flop.

Tthis thing plays like one of the cutaway Family Guy gags, something that’s normally less than 30 seconds, stretched out to two hours. None of the timing works. The characters are less than one-dimensional and uninteresting. Every gag with a remote chance of being funny is already spoiled in the trailer, and MacFarlane stops to explain the rest of them right into the dirt with none of his usual panache.

With A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane may have managed to achieve what the most contrarian Fox executives could not: There may be a million ways to die in the West, but the biggest corpse here is his career.

Review: Maleficent

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Maleficent

After watching Maleficent, Disney's live-action twist on their own classic animated tale Sleeping Beauty, it becomes evident that nobody but Angelina Jolie could play one of the greatest villains of all time. Ms. Jolie is magnetic onscreen and can smirk in front of a green screen like nobody's business. Her performance may not win her any awards, but she clearly had fun with the part. 

The film filters the story of Sleeping Beauty through a revisionist lens. We get to first meet Maleficent when she is just a young fairy, happily flying through the moor. One day, a young human boy named Stefan literally ends up in her neck of the woods and they become unlikely friends. Over time they even fall in love with each other, but in the grand tradition of many boys, he eventually betrays her. In Stefan's quest to become the king, he cuts off her wings. This sequence has an incredibly rapey subtext (not that it will be read that way by a family audience), replete with slipping her a roofie so he can violate her when she's passed out. I thought I was just being a little sensitive, but I've seen a few other reactions on Twitter that have let me know I'm not the only one who felt a little uncomfortable with the entire situation. What happens next is not exactly I Spit On Your Grave, but it does explain a little better as to why Maleficent places a curse on King Stefan's daughter Aurora. 

Review: Chinese Puzzle

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Chinese Puzzle

Over the course of 20 years, legendary French director Francois Truffaut created a series of five semi-autobiographical films that explored the life of Antoine Doinel. The character was introduced in 1959 and viewers around the world watched him grow up on screen from a 12-year-old in The 400 Blows into a man in his early thirties in 1979's Love On The Run

With Chinese Puzzle, which opens Friday in Austin at Regal Arbor, Cedric Klapisch has completed his "Spanish Apartment" trilogy and given us a contemporary series that certainly owes a lot to Truffaut's Doinel films. When we first meet Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris) in 2002's L'Auberge Espagnole, he is in his early twenties and taking off for the Erasmus student exchange program. He leaves France and his girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) behind to spend a year in Barcelona studying finance. Xavier makes lifelong friends with the roommates he shares in a small Spanish apartment, but finds a lack of actual passion for his field of study.

Lone Star Cinema: The Hot Flashes

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The Hot Flashes

You never know what you might find when you're browsing Netflix Instant selections on a dull Sunday afternoon, and when my husband (who had the remote, go figure) started to skip past the unknown-to-us movie The Hot Flashes, I did a double-take and said, "Wait, stop -- is that directed by Susan Seidelman?" As in, Susan Seidelman who made Desperately Seeking Susan and Smithereens and I haven't heard about her since that She-Devil adaptation I don't want to think about? My attention was caught.

Then we read the synopsis, which was about middle-age women playing basketball -- okay, that's novel -- and decided to play the "give it 10 minutes and turn it off if it's too dumb" game. We lasted through all 99 minutes with no regrets. (Full disclosure: After 10-ish minutes I exclaimed, "Hey, this movie is set in Texas! I'm gonna write it up," and ran to my office for a notebook and pen. Writers are like this.)

The Hot Flashes is a little bit dumb and a more than a little bit obvious, with a narrative of the utmost predictability. But an excellent cast, working together beautifully, and some clever scripting kept us watching. In addition, how often do you see films that star women about to hit menopause? Wait, it's better than that -- this is a feature film about women over 40 playing competitive sports. I know some of you are intrigued now too.

Slackery News Tidbits: May 27, 2014

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Here's the latest Austin and Texas film news.

  • Filmmaker Annie Silverstein's student short movie Skunk won the top prize at this year's Cinefondation section of the Cannes Film Festival, according to The Wrap. Along with winning 15,000 Euros, Skunk -- one of 16 films that screened, out of 1,631 student movies submitted worldwide -- gives Silverstein guaranteed entry to the festival for her first feature. She ran a successful crowdfunding campaign last year to finish Skunk, which was her master's thesis movie at The University of Texas at Austin. The movie stars local actress Heather Kafka.
  • Native Texan writer-director Matt Muir's Austin-lensed movie Thank You a Lot, which premiered at this year's SXSW, will have its digital/cable VOD release on June 3. The movie will also screen that night at the Angelika in Dallas (through Tugg) to celebrate its digital release. Thank You a Lot tells the story of a struggling manager whose job is threatened if he doesn't sign his dad, a reclusive Texas country-music singer.
  • Austin-based Mondo Gallery will present "The Art of Ken Taylor," including prints for the movies Children of Men and Little Shop of Horrors, from Friday, May 30 until June 21. The show's kickoff party takes place Friday at 7 pm at the gallery (4115 Guadalupe). Taylor will be in attendance.

Review: Belle

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Still from Belle

Watching Belle, the refreshingly atypical costume drama released nationwide this weekend, I was reminded of a quote from a book I finished recently. In Jill Lepore's biography of Jane Franklin (Ben's sister), she writes: "History is what is written and can be found; what isn't saved is lost, sunken and rotted, eaten by the earth." [Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin]

If Misan Sagay hadn't seen this portrait in a Scottish castle, we may never have learned about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle. Based on the limited facts the screenwriter was able to find in her research -- given that Dido was a female in the 18th Century, there's unfortunately not a large amount known about her -- Sagay crafted a tale about this real woman, illegitimately born of a black woman and a white admiral, who was raised by the Murray family.

Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Touch) is left as a child with her great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) after her mother's death. Her father (Matthew Goode, The Good Wife) assures her of his affection. "Know in your heart you are loved, just as I loved your mother," he tells her... then sails off to India. Lord Mansfield, his wife (Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie) and sister Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton, Downton Abbey, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) rear the child alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon, Cosmopolis, A Dangerous Method).

Movies This Week: May 23-29, 2014

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Belle 

Memorial Day weekend used to always usher in the official start of the summer movie season, but over the last few years the blockbusters have been sneaking into multiplexes earlier and earlier in May. Now that we've finally made it to the holiday weekend, the multiplexes are already exploding with big-budget tentpoles and sequels. Luckily for you, Austin theaters offer some legitmately interesting counterprogramming.

The Austin Film Society is starting a brand new series tonight called "Rebel Rebel." Earlier this week, we chatted with Lars Nilsen to find out more about the films being featured over the next few weekends. The first selection is Gillo Pontecorvo's 1969 film Burn! starring Marlon Brando. The movie features a score by Ennio Morricone and will be screening in 35mm at the Marchesa.

You'll want to head over to the AFS Screening Room on Tuesday night for the Avant Cinema presentation of Your Day Is My Night. Co-presented with the Austin Asian American Film Festival, the AFS notes for the film reveal that this "provocative hybrid documentary addresses issues of privacy, intimacy and urban life." Out Of The Blue is the final film in Richard Linklater's current Jewels In The Wasteland series and it screens in 35mm at the Marchesa on Wednesday night. Dennis Hopper transitioned from star to director during the shooting of this 1982 film.

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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X-Men: Days of Future PastThe movie X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best of the X-Franchise and possibly the strongest Marvel Comics screen adaptation to date. This is the summer movie to beat. The story unites two sets of cast members in a time-travel epic in which teams past and future battle to save the world.

The film opens in 2023, when the few remaining mutants are on the run, pursued constantly by sentinels, advanced robots with the ability to absorb and use mutant powers, adapting to everything thrown at them. One of the most appealing features of the X-Men comics has always been the unique interactions between characters who combine powers in new and interesting ways, something that featured strongly in X-Men: First Class. The epic opening battle we see in this movie with a different team of trained, experienced mutants is stunningly choreographed, with lavish visual effects.

The surviving mutants meet up with the principal members of the X-Men: Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and Storm (Halle Berry) and explain they’ve been using a time-travel technique to warn themselves of impending attacks, giving them time to evacuate each location.

Armed with that knowledge, Xavier hatches a plan to travel 50 years back in time and prevent Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), weapons designer and inventor of the sentinels from being assassinated by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the trigger that convinced Congress to fund the sentinel program. The ensuing story takes Wolverine -- the only mutant with the healing ability to survive such a trip -- back to the Nixon era on a quest to reunite Xavier and Magneto as they simultaneously battle evil forces 50 years apart.

Review: Blended

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Blended

The following is an open letter to the Hooters restaurant chain.

Dear Hooters:

So, what's with your numerous product placements in the new Adam Sandler film, Blended?

When you agreed to have the film's opening scene set in one of your restaurants -- and even allowed a monkey to be dressed as a Hooters waitress -- had you not gotten the memo that Blended isn't like Sandler's recent movies? Maybe you were expecting Blended to be the latest installment in Sandler's series of exceedingly raunchy and breathtakingly idiotic comedies. I expected it also, assuming that Blended would carry on the maturity-deficient tradition of Grown Ups, Jack and Jill, That's My Boy and the criminally unnecessary Grown Ups 2. Had this been the case, Hooters and Blended would have been a perfect marketing match, because Hooters and its fellow breastaurant chains are criminally unnecessary also. (Just kidding! Hooters may be the number one reason why America is the world's greatest country. You don't see breastaurants in Denmark!)

But apparently Sandler has pulled a fast one on us. Instead of an exceedingly raunchy and breathtakingly idiotic gross-out comedy, his new film is a tepidly raunchy and boringly dumb family comedy. If I hadn't seen Blended for free, I'd ask for my money back. And so should you, Hooters, for you and your waitresses do not belong in this movie. (The film's other major corporate sponsor, the uncontroversial Dick's Sporting Goods, is a much better fit.)

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