Summer Indies to Catch: August 2014

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The final month of the summer has swiftly arrived and as tradtition dictates, this means it's time for major studios to unleash those titles that didn't either didn't quite make the grade for the earlier months, or the ones they hope will be sleeper hits that will bring in loads of cash because there's little else for audiences to watch. Apart from the heavily anticipated Sin City sequel, not only is there very little I can think of that I want to see, there's very little I can actually recall being released. It's almost a fitting end to a lackluster summer for blockbusters. On the flip side, while the studios are winding down, the indies show no signs of letting up with many standout features making their way to audiences this month.

Magic in the Moonlight (opens Aug. 8 in Austin)

Capitalizing on his love of period pieces, Woody Allen's newest offering Magic in the Moonlight will no doubt leave some moviegoers split, as early screenings and reviews have indicated. Set against the gorgeous backdrop of the Riviera, famed illusionist Stanley (Colin Firth) is brought in to debunk a young woman named Sophie (Emma Stone) whose claims of psychic visions have enchanted an upper-class family in 1920s France.

AFS Series Preview: How Lars Picked the 'Roger Corman' Films

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A Bucket of Blood

We have him to thank for The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Trip, Bloody Mama and a half-dozen Poe adaptations. His producer credits include Piranha, Boxcar Bertha, TNT Jackson, Rock 'n' Roll High School and Sharktopus. (Perhaps best to disregard that last one.) He's notorious for shooting movies on little money in less than a week using sets from other films he'd just completed. Actors/filmmakers who worked on their earliest movies with him include Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller (pictured above in A Bucket of Blood), Robert Towne, John Sayles, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese. Roger Corman has 56 director credits and 409 producer credits on IMDb, and he's still producing.

And Austin Film Society programmer Lars Nilsen had to narrow it down to four features -- plus a bonus documentary on Dick Miller -- for the latest AFS Arthouse series: "Films of Roger Corman." The series, screening Fridays and Sundays at the Marchesa, runs August 8-31. I emailed him (Nilsen, not Corman) to find out the story behind the series. Check out our mini email interview below -- followed by a longer list of Corman films Nilsen would have loved to include, so you can have your own enhanced Roger Corman experience at home.

Slackerwood: What made you decide to pick Roger Corman for this particular series at this time?

Lars Nilsen: I think summertime is the best season for light, fun entertainment movies. I can't recall any series of Corman's directorial work here anytime recently and it seems like a good time. I also took note of the fact that this year marks Corman's 60th year in the industry. The fact that the Dick Miller film [That Guy Dick Miller] was coming out just made the whole thing seem like good timing.

Slackery News Tidbits: August 4, 2014

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Grow Up, Tony Phillips posterHere's the latest Austin and Texas film news.

  • SXSW 2013 selection Grow Up, Tony Phillips (Elizabeth's review) now has a distribution date. The family-friendly coming-of-age Halloween movie, written and directed by former Austinite Emily Hagins, will reach VOD and DVD on September 30, 2014. The VOD outlets will include Amazon, iTunes, Hulu and Vudu. The locally shot production also released a new poster by Jay Shaw (pictured at right), which is part of its Kickstarter perks (the film raised $80,000 in crowdfunding in 2012). [Full disclosure: I donated to this Kickstarter campaign.]
  • Hollywood Reporter recently published its annual list of Top 25 U.S. Film Schools -- and The University of Texas at Austin is #10 on the list for its radio-television-film program. (The University of Southern California topped the list.) The article lauds the university's "Semester in L.A." program and new 3D production program, as well as noting the recent $50 million gift from the Moody Foundation. (UT is also one of the more affordable universities in the top ten.)
  • The Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) has unveiled a new online exhibit: "Starring the Lone Star State." The collection includes a wealth of video footage related to Texas filmmaking, from silent films through contemporary movies. Newsreel footage from the Galveston hurricane in 1900, video from the set of The Alamo (1960, John Wayne), Cactus Pryor interviwing Ann-Margret ... prepare to spend a lot of time here. 
  • Austin City Councill will be considering a zoning change on Aug. 7 for the demolition of a building at 619 Congress, to make way for a boutique hotel, the Austin Chronicle reports. What does this have to do with film, you might ask? The problem is that the building shares a wall with The Hideout, a film venue for Austin Film Festival and other events, which has also been used as the Film Badgeholders Lounge for SXSW in recent years. (It's also a good resting place before/after a movie at Paramount or State.) The Hideout is very concerned about the possibility of dealing with a damaged wall and how a big construction project will affect its ability to remain open. (I am concerned about my ability to find a quiet place to write downtown during big film festivals, since Little City's long gone too.)

Movies This Week: August 1-7, 2014

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Get On Up

In terms of wide releases, it's a fairly quiet week due to Marvel taking over more than 4,000 screens nationwide. Universal is countering with its James Brown biopic, but there's no other real compeition in the market for mainstream crowds. Specialty audiences are still discovering Richard Linklater's Boyhood (Don's review), which expands to AMC Barton Creek and Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline this weekend, while continuing with plenty of showtimes at Alamo Slaughter Lane, Regal Arbor and Violet Crown Cinema.

Speaking of Mr. Linklater, he'll be at the Marchesa tonight to introduce Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon. It's a free screening for folks who contributed to last year's Austin Film Society campaign to make improvements at Marchesa Hall and Lars Nilsen reports that the 35mm print is "pretty much perfect." Capacity permitting, $10 general admission tickets will be available. Barbara Stanwyck wil be taking over the Essential Cinema series for August (Elizabeth's preview), kicking off with a 35mm screening of The Lady Eve on Thursday night. Henry Fonda and Charles Coburn also star in this 1941 classic by Preston Sturges. 

The Paramount Summer Classic Film Series is headed into the 1940s this weekend with 35mm prints of Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story on Saturday and Sunday. Wednesday and Thursday finds the series jumping ahead into the 1950s with a double feature of All About Eve and The Bad And The Beautiful, both also screening in 35mm.

Review: Get on Up

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Get On UpThe average music biopic has become so riddled with cliches in recent years that the entire genre was spoofed in a parody (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) that managed to be spot-on and over the top at the same time. In Get on Up, director Tate Taylor, coming off his successful big-screen adaptation of The Help, brings together a gifted cast and crew to tell the story of "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business," but it falls into many of the traps that made the biopic format so easy to mock in the first place.

James Brown's life began in 1933 while the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Get On Up doesn't start with his birth, but rather opts to open with a bizarre incident in the late 1980s with him running around his office in a green velour tracksuit brandishing a shotgun to determine who had just used his bathroom. Brown is portrayed by Chadwick Boseman (who also took on the role of the legendary Jackie Robinson in last year's 42) and his dedication is clearly evident, especially during the recreation of the live concert sequences. In one of the film's many odd creative decisions, he frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the audience and explain his motivations. 

As we weave in and out of over 50 years of history in the making, the curious structure and tone of Get on Up become increasingly problematic. One moment we are running in the woods with Brown as a child playing with his mother and shortly after we're on a flight to Vietnam that is being shot at with his entire band on board preparing to land for a USO concert in 1968. We catch glimpses of Brown's difficult childhood and how he eventually ends up being raised in a whorehouse by his aunt (Octavia Spencer), but these moments only serve to feed more into the myth of James Brown instead of shining a light on the man he became. 

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

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Guardians of the GalaxyWith its post-credits teasers for The Avengers after each superhero movie, Marvel generated excitement and buzz. After seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, I'm convinced that this movie, and not The Avengers, is the ultimate end product that all those scenes were teasing. Written by James Gunn (Super, Slither) and Nicole Perlman, and directed by Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera like nothing that's hit screens since Flash Gordon in 1980.

Based on a relatively new addition to the Marvel Comics universe, Guardians of the Galaxy fully realizes the possibilities of a comic book brought to life with phenomenal visuals and a script full of unexpected surprises and laughs. Readers of the series will notice some departures from a strict retelling, including a couple of absent members of the group (who will likely turn up in a sequel), but this is far and away the most colorful, flashy and entertaining release the studio has brought us yet.

Guardians of the Galaxy stars newly-buffed Parks & Rec star Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, aka "Star-Lord," the wisecracking leader of the group -- an unlikely misfit of a superhero with more charisma than Tony Stark. His work as a sort of outer-space Indiana Jones soon lands him in trouble with very dangerous people, and the only way through his predicament is to save the galaxy. He is joined on his quest by the lovely green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and muscle-bound alien Drax (Dave Bautista).  

It is the last two members of the group, however -- Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his bodyguard/companion Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) -- who will provide the best merchandising fodder. While Quill is something of a Luke Skywalker type, young and full of unrealized potential, Rocket and Groot are clear analogues for Han Solo and Chewbacca with a little of R2-D2 and C3PO thrown in the mix. They provide most of the comedic relief to the epic dark galactic struggle in which the story is immersed.

A strong contender for my favorite movie this summer, Guardians of the Galaxy features a feel-good soundtrack of 1970s hits and art direction that seems inspired by visions of Alejandro Jodorowsky. I can't say enough great things about this movie, and I can't wait to get to a theater to see it again.

Toronto International Film Fest Lineup Includes a Slice of Austin

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manglehorn still

The Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 4-14 this year, and local director David Gordon Green, Austin-frequenter Jason Reitman and Austin native Ethan Hawke will all be premiering films there. 

Green, whose previous Texas-filmed work includes Joe (Jette's review) and Prince Avalanche (my review), shot Manglehorn in Austin last year and North American audiences will have the chance to see it for the first time at TIFF. Manglehorn stars Al Pacino, Holly Hunter and Chris Messina and tells the story of a lonely locksmith whose heart is stuck in the past.

The film crew was spotted at various Austin locations last fall, including Sharp's Locksmith and Little Mexico on South First and the Driskill downtown. In Debbie's interview with Green at the Dallas International Film Festival in April, he said Manglehorn would be the final installment of his "Texas trilogy" and described the movie as "melancholy but full of hope and life and love."

AFS Essential Cinema: Stanwyck in Her Prime

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Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper and other "professors" in BALL OF FIRE

If last summer's pre-code Barbara Stanwyck quartet of films left you hungry for more, you will be glad to know that additional Stanwyck movies are on the way! August's Essential Cinema series from Austin Film Society will showcase films from the prime of Stanwyck's career.  AFS Programmer Lars Nilsen has included a couple of well-known favorites with two titles that may be less familiar. 

I asked Nilsen why he chose to show more of this amazing actress's movies, and here's his answer:

Last year we showed the early Stanwyck. She had all the fire and personality and talent but you couldn't really call her a mature screen artist yet. The period covered here is Stanwyck as an experienced performer, fully aware of her craft and able to deploy great reserves of feeling and audience sympathy. I feel like if we had only shown the pre-Code films we would be short changing Stanwyck, who is even better in this selection of films.

AFS Hosts 'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For' Premiere

Sin City 2 posterLast week, Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez was at San Diego Comic-Con, promoting his latest movie Sin City: A Dame to Kill For with panels and parties -- even walking the convention floor in costume.

This week, the Austin Film Society has announced it will host the Texas premiere of the Sin City sequel, which will take place Wednesday, August 20 at the Paramount Theatre. The screening will be in 3D -- how many chances have you had to watch a 3D movie downtown at the Paramount?

Tickets are on sale now only for AFS members, who have until August 5 to buy tickets at a discounted rate -- as low as $20 for the balcony. On August 6, general-public tickets go on sale with no AFS member discount. Tickets include admission to an afterparty at the Rattle Inn.

Rodriguez co-directed Sin City: A Dame to Kill For with Frank Miller, who authored the original graphic novel and wrote the movie's script. Both of them also collaborated on the 2005 movie. Returning cast members include Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Jaime King, Rosario Dawson and Bruce Willis. Among the movie's many other stars are Josh Brolin, Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt ... and Lady Gaga.

No word yet on any special guests for the premiere, but we'll keep you posted.

And just for fun, here's a photo of Rodriguez from the Texas Film Awards earlier this year, performing with musicians Patricia Vonne (who's his sister) and Alex Ruiz.

Lone Star Cinema: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room posterThe names Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow are not as prevalent in the media as they were in the last decade. These men, behind the success (such as it was) and severe failure of Enron, were eventually found guilty of fraud and other charges.

The 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is based on the book of the same name. Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) interviews the book's authors, journalist Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, along with journalists, political figures and former Enron employees. Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich), who could narrate practically anything and lend it a certain credence, talks of the bravado and bluff in the history of the energy-trading company based in Houston. 

These interviews and Coyote's narration speak to the shenanigans going down at the once-praised company. The "macho culture" at the business is described, corraborated by video clips from an extreme motocross trip and discussion of one executive's love for strippers (with requisite strip club footage). Audio of male traders making rude and conspiratorial remarks is played over scenes from the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis. In such a case, it's not shocking that a woman, Sherron Watkins, turned whistleblower against Enron.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts the real-life events as a sort of morality tale, with many of the interviewees speaking about the lousy ethics of the company's business and their "synergistic corruption."  The director includes C_SPAN video of Skilling before a Senate committee, lying about his part in the faulty financing Enron was using.  Because the company appeared to be doing so well -- they were making loads of money, anyway -- any outside person who tried to ask important questions about the business or look closer at their dealings faced repurcussions.

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