Review: Life Itself

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Life ItselfThe documentary Life Itself, currently in theaters and on VOD outlets, is a valentine to its subject -- the late Roger Ebert -- but avoids oversentimentality or blind hero-worship. Steve James deftly balances a biography of the film critic and author with a moving look at his last days.

James is a little more present as a narrator in this documentary than in his other films (Hoop Dreams, Reel Paradise), explaining the situation surrounding the most contemporary footage. He and Ebert planned an ambitious series of interviews and other location shooting, but Ebert was hospitalized and both his time and energy became more limited. James works capably with what he can get -- a few meetings in the hospital, questions emailed one at a time. Watching Ebert as he struggles to get through each day is heartbreaking.

The shots of what we know are Ebert's last days are interspersed with a generally linear biography of his life, told through archival footage, interviews with friends and colleagues, and excerpts from Ebert's 2011 autobiography, also called Life Itself. The excerpts are read by an actor who successfully catches the rhythms of Ebert's voice, which is disconcerting. Also, the movie didn't make it clear that the chapter-titled segments were book excerpts, which is slightly confusing if you didn't realize it going in.

In addition, James interviews family members -- Chaz Ebert and their grandchildren, old friends and colleagues, and a number of filmmakers who were close to Ebert. The interviews are beautifully realized, emotional and complementary to the sequences in which they appear.

This is the paragraph where I, like everyone else reviewing Life Itself, am supposed to tell you my big moving Roger Ebert story -- that one time I met him, or wrote him, or how his TV shows made me want to review movies, or how the indie films he spotlighted broadened my horizons and changed my life.

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes posterEvery type of writing has its set of rules -- not as strict as a sonnet or even a haiku, but still necessary to keep content focused and readers engaged. A standard movie review is no exception. Over the years, I've amassed a strong list from writing reviews, editing other people's reviews and discussing review quality with other editors.

I think it's important to know all the rules for your particular arena of art or craft ... so you can break them when necessary. And the movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is causing me to break damn near all the rules. I'll show you what I mean.

Summarize your overall opinion of the movie within the first or second paragraph.

Broke that one, but let me make it simple for you now: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a disappointing, dull movie with amazing set pieces dimmed by 3D and a storyline that is sledgehammer-subtle.

A decade after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the apes have formed their own quite impressive colony and fallen into a regular-guy (ape) pattern of existence. Caesar (Andy Serkis) still leads the community while raising his nearly grown son, and awaiting the arrival of his newly-born son.

But humans appear seemingly out of nowhere, brandishing (and using) guns, and destroying the colony's peace. Caesar is willing to work with them, especially the leader of the team, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who has a teenage son of his own tagging along. But Scar, oops, I mean Koba (Toby Kebbell), mistrusts all humans and their weaponry. His human counterpart is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who sees the apes as merely animals and is ready to destroy them in the name of human survival. You can see the trouble brewing -- it won't take much to start a human-ape war.

In fact, the problem is that not only can you see the trouble brewing, you can see every plot point in the movie as it hurtles toward you, and you can predict most of the terribly cliched lines of dialogue.

Movies This Week: July 11-17, 2014

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Life Itself

The Austin Film Society is kicking off the weekend with another Free Member Friday event. Tonight, AFS Members can enjoy a program of short films at the Marchesa for free, including Kat Candler's original 2012 short Hellion (recently adapted into a terrific feature) and Todd Rohal's Rat Pack Rat, which won a special jury prize at Sundance this year. Come on out even if you're not a member for $10 general admission tickets.

AFS is also hosting some special advance screenings of Richard Linklater's acclaimed new film Boyhood (Debbie's review) this weekend. The 1 pm screening on Sunday at the Marchesa is already sold out, but a 7 pm show still has VIP tickets available that include a private dinner with the director and cast. The acclaimed documentary Manakamana is screening at the Marchesa on Tuesday evening while Sweet Dreams folows on Wednesday. Essential Cinema closes out a busy week with a 35mm print of Ingmar Bergman's Cries And Whispers on Thursday night. 

Fresh off a Presidential visit, the Paramount's Summer Classic Film Series gets back on track with King Vidor's silent classic The Big Parade tonight at the Stateside. The Paramount will fire up the 70mm projectors this weekend as Lawrence Of Arabia returns in all its big-screen glory tomorrow night and twice on Sunday. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, the Paramount will pay tribute to Montgomery Clift with a 35mm double feature of Red River and The Heiress and then the Stateside will have a couple of great Westerns on Thursday night with a double feature of The Magnificent Seven and The Misfits.

Review: Coherence

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Coherence still photo

Schrodinger's cat is an imaginary illustration of a paradox: "When does a quantum system stop existing as a superposition of states and become one or the other?" Writer/director James Ward Byrkit explores this thought experiment and various results in his first feature, Coherence, which adds a new dimension to the typical dinner party film.

Coherence evolves at an intimate dinner gathering of four couples: former dancer Em (Emily Baldoni) and Kevin (Maury Sterling), former Roswell actor Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and his introverted wife Lee (Lorene Scafaria), older couple Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), and Amir (Alex Manugian) who brings his new girlfriend Laurie (Lauren Maher).

It's quickly revealed that Laurie has an intimate history with Kevin, which leads to awkward moments, but Em is more concerned about something she's heard -- the astronomic event of a lifetime taking place that same night. Miller's Comet is due to pass near Earth, and reports of strange occurrences during previous passings are a discussion point after Em's phone inexplicably cracks.

AFS Doc Nights Preview: Sweet Dreams

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Drummers of Ingoma Nshya in Sweet Dreams

2014 marks 20 years since the Rwandan genocide. The months-long attack led by Hutus in 1994 resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, almost 20 percent of the country's population. The 2012 documentary Sweet Dreams, screening next week for Austin Film Society's Doc Nights series, depicts a community-building program that is helping female Rwandans recover from those horrific events.

Ingoma Nshya is the first all-female drumming troupe in Rwanda, formed of Hutus and Tutsis. Some members lost family in the genocide, and some have family in jail for their participation in the mass killings. Troupe leader Kiki Katese meets some ice-cream makers from Brooklyn and is inspired to have the Rwandan women start their own shop, Inzozi Nziza (which means "sweet dreams").

Sweet Dreams has many interviews with women from the group. There's Clementine, a young woman who walks 1.5 hours to town for rehearsals. Another woman, whose parents are currently jailed, says, "If ever there's a place you can find peace, that place is Ingoma Nshya. That's where I was reborn." Co-directors Lisa and Rob Fruchtman follow the ladies through the formation of their co-op and past the troubled days leading up to the store's opening.

Summer Indies to Catch: July 2014

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By Frank Calvillo

Though it may sound a tad far-fetched, there will be a number of theaters not showing the latest installment in Michael Bay's juggernaut Transformers film series. Likewise, there are no doubt a good many cinephiles wishing a break from the continuing saga of those deceptacons. Luckily, the indie film world has come to the rescue with one of the most diverse July arthouse lineups ever Liam Neeson in a rare non-action role, an anticipated LaCarre adaptation, a celebration of one of the movie world's most prolific figures and the unveiling of Richard Linklater's coming-of-age opus.

Third Person (currently in theaters)

Boasting one of the most impressive and eclectic casts of the year, Paul Haggis' Third Person looks to inject some much-needed human drama into a summer dominated by special effects. A writer in Paris (Neeson) is torn between his mistress (Olivia Wilde) and his estranged wife (Kim Basinger) -- while in New York, a lawyer (Maria Bello) helps a single mother (Mila Kunis) fight for rights to the child she had with an artist (James Franco) as a traveling businessman (Adrien Brody) in Rome is pulled into a con game by a beautiful, desperate woman (Moran Atias). The cast has been praised for the weight they bring to their challenging, and tricky roles (in particular Basinger, who manages so much in just a couple of scenes) and the production values are quite stunning. Haggis is certainly no stranger to the ensemble film, but rather than survey the social and political as he has in the past, in Third Person, the director focuses on the personal and complex nature of human behavior.

Slackery News Tidbits: July 7, 2014

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Here's the latest Austin and Texas film news.

  • Amplify has acquired the U.S. distribution rights to Austinites David and Nathan Zellner's Kumiko, the Treasure HunterIndiewire reports. The drama follows a lonely Japanese woman who, after becoming obsessed with Fargo, heads to Minnesota on a quest to unearth the cash-filled briefcase from the movie. Debbie reviewed the movie at Sundance. A release date hasn't yet been announced.
  • This month, the Alamo Drafthouse has announced it's "going to 11" with its programming -- celebrating music in movies in all the chain's theaters. A Hard Day's Night and This is Spinal Tap screen tonight at Alamo Ritz and Alamo Lakeline, respectively. Other musical movies scheduled for July include Hedwig and the Angry Inch, High Fidelity, Wattstax, Gimme Shelter, Empire Records and Stop Making Sense.
  • The Austin Film Festival's Free Family Film Series presents a screening of Bandolero! on Tuesday at 7 pm at the Texas Spirit Theater. James Stewart and Dean Martin star in this 1968 crime drama about two brothers on the run from a sheriff-led posse. 

Lone Star Cinema: The Newton Boys

newton boys still

After Slacker and Dazed and Confused but before Bernie, Before Midnight and the soon-to-be-released Boyhood, Richard Linklater made a charming little movie called The Newton Boys. Filmed in Texas and featuring a band of charismatic actors (most of whom have gone on to considerable success in film and/or television), this true story depicts the bank-robbing exploits of four entrepreneurial and adventure-loving brothers in the early 20th century. 

Raised in Uvalde County, Texas in a cotton farming family, the Newton brothers are an unruly bunch whose lives tell a one-of-a-kind story of American idealism and brash (but mostly non-violent) outlaw behavior. After Dock and Willis, the oldest two brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio and Matthew McConaughey), experience various real and perceived injustices (including class-based discrimination, wrongful imprisonment and general mistreatment by authority figures), they give up on trying to live lawful lives and instead decide to take what they think should be theirs.

This means emptying banks ("it's just little thieves taking from big thieves") and lying whenever necessary but vowing never to kill anyone. Thanks to the nitroglycerin supplied by cohort Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) and the endearingly slow transportation and communication systems of the 1920s, Dock and Willis (also joined by their younger brothers Jess and Joe, played by Ethan Hawke and Skeet Ulrich) are able to become incredibly successful bank robbers, and they proceed to spend several years joyfully blowing up and clearing out dozens of safes and trains from Texas to Canada. 

Review: Earth to Echo

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Earth to EchoWhen watching a release from a first-time director, it's always difficult to know exactly what to expect. Judging by the previews, you might have expected Earth to Echo to be a sophisticated, effects-driven grand adventure on the scale of The Goonies or ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. What you'll get is a charming mashup that pulls its strongest influences from classics like ET, The Goonies and The Iron Giant but never finds enough of its own identity to become more than an "echo" of those sources.

Director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden, who both worked on the small screen on the series Zombie Roadkill, have assembled a talented cast of relative unknown child actors including Teo Halm (Alex), Brian Bradley (Tuck), Reese Hartwig (Munch), and Ella Wahlestedt (Emma). The most recognizable face is the adult villain Dr. Madsen played by the unlikely Jason Gray-Stanford, best known as police Lt. Randy Disher in Monk. He turns in a very paint-by-numbers performance, but sees little screen time in a story shot entirely from the kids' point of view.

While people are calling Earth to Echo a found footage film, it is set as an autobiographical documentary shot and assembled by the character Tuck. When his friend Alex discovers that any cell phone brought into the vicinity of his house starts to exhibit unusual behavior, the two join their friend Munch, an electronics expert, to investigate. This begins a nighttime adventure as the trio follows clues to discover the tiny robot alien they name "Echo" and help it repair itself.  They are joined later by their classmate and school crush, Emma as they are chased by alien hunter Dr. Madsen.

Green makes the most of a relatively low budget, with f/x used sparingly. In a refreshing departure from the found-footage mode, every shot is from a recognizable source: one of Tuck's cameras, one of the kids' mobile phones or Echo. All are edited by Tuck to tell his story. 

Movies This Week: July 2-10, 2014

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Begin Again

With a holiday weekend ahead of us, Movies This Week is getting an early run so you can determine which flicks are best worth your time. Since it's a few days ahead of schedule, there are a few repeats from last week's column here in the rundown of repertory screenings.

The Austin Film Society is launching a new Essential Cinema series featuring some of the best collaborations of Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman this Thursday at the Marchesa. Read Chale's preview for more details. The first movie of the series is 1966's Persona and next Thursday (July 10), you'll be able to catch 1969's The Passion Of Anna, both in 35mm. A newly restored 35mm print of Alain Resnais' Je T'aime, Je T'aime is on the books this Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. Also, catch a rare screening on Tuesday night of Eggshells, a 1968 film by Tobe Hooper that was shot in Austin (Don's preview from 2011). Hooper will be joined at the Marchesa by Louis Black for a discussion of the film.

"The Complete David Lynch" series begins tonight at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz (and continues through the end of August) with a 35mm print of Eraserhead, which also encores Thursday afternoon. The second film in that series, The Elephant Man, screens in 35mm next Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

If you're looking to laugh hysterically for the 4th of July, buy tickets for the 10th anniversary screenings of Team America: World Police on Friday night at the Ritz, Lakeline, Slaughter Lane and Village locations. If you're a fan of Sylvester Stallone and the Rocky series, you can choose from three mystery screenings this upcoming Sunday evening. A different Rocky film will screen at the Ritz, Lakeline and Village locations with brand new Mondo prints available to purchase at each.

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