HCFF Review: Night Owls

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Night Owls

An ambitious young man finds himself tending to his boss's girlfriend -- his married boss's secret girlfriend -- who's in despair. It sounds like the middle of The Apartment, but it's actually the focus of Night Owls, a feature that premiered at SXSW and just screened at the Hill Country Film Festival, where it won the Cinema Dulce Best of Fest award. The indie owes a large debt to the 1960 Billy Wilder film without feeling like a remake or tribute.

The movie opens with Madeline (Rosa Salazar) taking Kevin (Adam Pally) home for a boozy one-night stand ... or so Kevin thinks. It's only after their brief liaison that Kevin, about to slip out of the house, realizes in stages that a) it's not her house, it belongs to his boss; b) Madeline's been involved with his boss in some way; and c) she's out cold in the bathroom after overdosing on something unknown.

Interview: Eddie Muller, Noir City Austin 2015

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After what seemed like an eternity of continuously refreshing calendars and Facebook pages for information, Noir City finally returns to Austin this week. Hosted by the Film Noir Foundation, the ten-film lineup full of shadow-soaked men and women who find themselves dallying in the darkness begins Friday, May 8 at 7:35 pm with a screening of the recently-restored Woman on the Run (1950).

Like last year, FNF Founder and President Eddie Muller will be on hand to introduce each of the selected films, highlighting little-known production trivia and discussing each movie's long journey toward restoration.

Unlike last year's Noir City, which featured an eclectic assortment of titles, this year's festival focuses on the adapted works of screenwriter and novelist Cornell Woolrich, one of the genre's most prominent figures.

Recently, I had the chance to ask film noir expert Muller some questions about this year's festival, which included the focus on Woolrich, the fascinating history of Woman on the Run and why this year's Noir City includes one of Barbara Stanwyck's greatest turns on screen.

Box-Office Alternatives: Avengers Edition

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I remember watching an interview a long time ago where Roger Ebert commented that nothing a critic said, good or bad, could alter the power of the superhero blockbuster. Those movies would always be hits because people were determined to make them so.

Ebert went on to say that where a critic's power truly lies is in giving attention to smaller films that don't usually have a such a grand platform on which to be discovered.

So in honor of the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), I decided to comb through the filmographies of its stars for some of those titles that definitely deserve a little more attention.

Robert Downey Jr: Two Girls and a Guy

Everyone was astounded with Robert Downey Jr's extraordinary career turnaround playing Tony Stark. It's resulted in people forgetting about some of the interesting films the actor made during his rocky period. Case in point, the actor-driven Two Girls and A Guy (1997). Teaming for a third time with writer/director James Toback, Downey plays Blake, a cheating New York actor who is confronted by his two current girlfriends (Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson-Wagner).

Lone Star Cinema: Poltergeist (1982)

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Poltergeist poster from 1982I realize I'm cheating a bit by considering Poltergeist a Lone Star Cinema selection, since the connections seem pretty sparse, as you'll see in the last paragraph. Watching the trailer for the upcoming remake (in theaters later this month) made me want to see the 1982 movie again -- I'd seen it only once before, on a bootleg VHS tape in the mid-1980s.

The most surprising thing about Poltergeist is how very odd it is. It's just weird, at least from a contemporary point of view. It's as though someone took the hallmarks of Steven Spielberg's 1980s filmmaking and twisted them into something almost distastefully creepy. That someone may have been director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) or producer/co-writer Spielberg himself. I was entirely absorbed by the movie this go-round, but I can't really say I liked it.

For anyone left who hasn't heard of the movie (or only knows its "They're here!" tagline), Poltergeist is about a typical suburban family that has to deal with strange, supernatural activities in their otherwise  typical suburban house, just as contractors are digging up part of the yard for a swimming pool. The younger daughter, Carol Anne, is particularly susceptible ... and eventually vanishes into thin air, although audible from the static-y TV set (who else remembers static?).

One thing I do remember from seeing Poltergeist as a teenager is my utter amazement that even though Carol Anne is kidnapped by supernatural beings, the family continues to live in the house. I still can't believe they stay there as long as they do, although that does add extra satisfaction to the final scene. This time, though, I can't believe that they don't call the police or let anyone know about Carol Anne's appearance except a handful of parapsychologists, led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight). And of course you know Zelda Rubinstein is going to turn up eventually.

(Aside: While I saw Poltergeist on crappy VHS, I saw Poltergeist 2 in a theater, on a date. I realize now that I remembered the sequel more clearly than the original, which led to further surprises since I recalled different outcomes for certain characters. I am slightly tempted to watch the sequel again to verify, but I also remember that movie as being mega-dumb, so nope.)

Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

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clouds of sils mariaYou may have already heard a few things about Clouds of Sils Maria -- including that Kristen Stewart achieved the nearly impossible by winning a major French acting award in a French movie playing opposite the French goddess (emphasis mine) Juliette Binoche

This is a fine starting point, but there is so much more (so much more) to talk about here. Director Olivier Assayas has made a film that explores the kind of relationship not usually depicted onscreen (and rarely with such grace and intelligence), while here and there upending traditional narrative and editorial techniques to great effect. 

Binoche is the star of the film, meaning she has more screen time than anyone and also plays a film star named Maria Enders. Maria is enjoying artistic success even as the inevitability of middle age -- terrifying for an actress -- starts to make its presence known.

Maria first finds fame when she plays a young, self-assured woman who seduces and destroys an older woman (who is also her boss and lover). Twenty years later, Maria has been asked to play the older character in the same play in an updated London production. This proposition challenges her heart and soul and offends her vanity but appeals to her sense of self-confidence and intellect.

She knows taking the role will be a power move. Mastering the nuances of two such different people would bring her wider fame and adoration for a little while longer, but in the wake of her recent divorce and the death of a mentor, Maria knows this exercise will be taxing, as well. 

Movies This Week: May 1-7, 2015

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Multiplexes will be filled with superheroes this weekend as the new Avengers film touches down on almost 4,300 screens nationwide. A movie that big doesn't leave much room for anything else (even the Alamo Drafthouse isn't adding new titles this weekend at area locations aside from the Marvel sequel), although a few specialty releases are poised to breakthrough and we've got some recommended events for those of you who are not up for a comic-book blockbuster. 

Austin Film Society is teaming up with the Premiers Plans Festival of Angers, France this weekend for a New French Cinema series of Texas premiere screenings at the Marchesa along with special guest filmmakers and programmers from the fest. This program is part of the Sister Cities initiative between Austin and Angers and begins tonight with Spartacus & Cassandra, an acclaimed documentary from director Ioanis Nuguet, who will be in attendance for a Q&A. This particular screening is also being presented for Free Member Friday. All are welcome to attend, but AFS Members can go for free.

On Saturday afternoon, AFS will host a Moviemaker Dialogue event called "Vive French Cinema: Filmmakers and Programmers Discuss Today's French Film Industry." This will occur at 3 pm and will include a meet-and-greet reception with the weekend's guests. Sunday will close with a double feature of Insecure, a new drama (with Blue Is The Warmest Color star Adele Exarchopoulos) that will have director Marianne Tardieu in attendance, paired with Guillaume Brac's debut film, Tonnerre

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Avengers: Age of UltronThe day is finally here, and fans assemble for the follow-up to Marvel's 2012 Joss Whedon-directed hit movie The Avengers. This week's new release, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was also written and directed by Whedon, creator of hit TV franchises Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly.

Marvel continues to tie events in its film franchise to its TV series Agents of SHIELD, which provides a plausible reason for the group of superheroes to reunite in search of Loki's sceptre. The sceptre has fallen into dangerous hands in the wake of SHIELD's collapse, as witnessed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents of SHIELD. The recapture of that artifact leads to the creation of Ultron, a new and deadly cybernetic enemy bent on the team's destruction.

James Spader voices Ultron, and it's hard not to like the villain perhaps more than the heroes with his matter-of-fact quips and insults, always several steps ahead of the team as he descends into creepy madness.

Whedon is an expert at balancing an ensemble cast, and this is one of the largest to date with 12 major players who all get ample screentime and character development. That said, Avengers: Age of Ultron is very much made for fans and presented with the expectation that the audience will be versed in the backstories of the characters through Marvel's other movies at a minimum, if not Avengers comic-book storylines as well. Students, er, audience members, who haven't done the required reading may find themselves overwhelmed as new characters are introduced and the action jumps from place to place.

Box-Office Alternatives: Salt of the Earth

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Wim Wenders' captivating documentary The Salt of the Earth (2014) opens Friday in Austin after numerous festival screenings and heaps of critical praise. The Oscar-nominated documentary film follows famed photographer Sebastiao Selgado as he embarks on one of the most ambitious projects of his 40-year career in an effort to capture the planet's true essence and beauty.

I've no doubt that Wenders' Salt of the Earth is the wonderful piece of filmmaking others have claimed it to be. Yet when I hear the phrase "salt of the earth," my mind can't help but think of the stirring 1954 independent drama of the same name as well as the important social significance it conveyed and the controversy that surrounded the movie.

Set within a New Mexico mining town, Salt of the Earth (1954) centers on husband and wife Ramon (Juan Chacon) and Esperanza (Rosaura Ruevueltas), a happily married couple expecting their third child. Ramon's grandfather once owned the land where the family lives. However, by the 1950s, ownership has reverted to the white man and Ramon now spends his life as an employee of the local mine. When poor working conditions force Ramon and his fellow miners to go on strike, their actions trigger a chain of events that may forever change the lives of Ramon, Esperanza and the whole community.

Site News: Slackerwood Prepares to Wrap Up

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Pennybacker Bridge

I've been writing for and editing Slackerwood now for about nine years -- a long time, especially on the internet. And while it's been a wonderful experience, I feel like it's time for me to move on.

May 27, 2015 will be the last day we'll publish content to Slackerwood. The site will still remain online and searchable but it'll be an archive, essentially. Over the next month, we'll be winding down with a few final editions of regular columns and other coverage.

Why close the site? Because Slackerwood doesn't deserve an even slightly restless editor, to paraphrase Jon Stewart. Editing and publishing Slackerwood, while often delightful and rewarding, is a time-consuming job. After nine years, I'd like to spend that time doing other things, like more writing.

Review: Adult Beginners

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Adult Beginners posterHave you seen the indie film about the young ambitious-but-party-loving professional who has to move in with relatives after a heartbreaking business failure? Or how about the one where the estranged siblings are thrown back together and try to rebuild a strong relationship, in spite of their parents? Or maybe the movie where the single person or childless couple learn how much they've missed by not having children in their lives.

Adult Beginners retreads these all-too-familiar paths, but in such a pleasant way -- and with such an amusing cast -- that it's rarely tiresome. 

Jake (Nick Kroll) is one of those entrepreneurial types so familiar here in Austin (although he's wheeling and dealing in NYC) ready to launch The Next Big Thing. At the peak of his fabulous launch party, however, the venture collapses irretrievably, leaving him broke, unemployed and lacking any belief that he can do much of anything successfully. Jake moves in with his sister Justine (Rose Byrne) and her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale), out to their parents' old home in the suburbs, and he agrees to be their son Teddy's nanny in return for room and board.

At this point the movie shifts into predictable patterns: Jake learning how to care for a child, Jake dealing with nannies, Justine and Danny coping with having a self-centered man-child in their home, Jake and Justine rebuilding their relationship. I keep mixing up plot elements in my head with The Skeleton Twins (especially because of the pool element) and even In a World (unrelated: keep an ear out for Fred Malamed's voice in this movie too).

As with both those movies, the cast adds strength and interest to the more familiar aspects of the plot. Kroll and Byrne may not look much like siblings but they have the interaction down pat -- especially during/after Skype calls to their father and his wife. Byrne's character is probably the best-written of the bunch, with some lovely moments that push the role above the standard "exasperated but supportive wife and sister" cliche. I particularly liked a scene in a coffeehouse with a student she's mentoring. Cannavale's character is far more standard but he hits every note perfectly.

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