December 2014

Holiday Favorites 2014: A Cinephile's New Year's Eve

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In 2011, Garry Marshall directed the all-star holiday comedy New Year's Eve (2011), a film so shamelessly sentimental (although I still think the Michelle Pfeiffer/Zac Efron storyline was charming and deserved a movie of its own) that it's destined to be played every December 31 for many years to come. Though it wasn't a critics' favorite, enough people liked New Year's Eve to think it the ultimate film about the holiday. Not so.

Its true that Christmas movies may be a dime a dozen, while movies celebrating New Year's tend to be given the short end of the stick. As someone who loves seeing people during this time of year, but enjoys holiday movie marathons just as much, I've always been rather let down by the slim cinematic offerings available for this particular holiday. Therefore, for the movie lover celebrating New Year's at home this time around, here are a few titles to help ring in 2015.

The Apartment (1960)

A bit racy for its day (especially considering its two leading men), The Apartment tells the story of a mid-level businessman (Jack Lemmon) who lets his coworkers and bosses use his bachelor apartment for romantic dalliances. It's not long before an encounter with a quirky elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine) however, changes his outlook on life and love.

Holiday Favorites 2014: Steven DeGennaro and '29th Street'

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29th Street Still PhotoWelcome 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.

Today's pick is from seasoned sound designer turned writer/director Steven DeGennaro, whose short film First Date premiered during the AFS ShortCase at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival. DeGennaro successfully wrapped a crowdfunding campaign and raised over $35,000 for his first feature, Found Footage 3D. Here's his holiday favorite:

There’s only one holiday movie in my family, and that’s 29th Street. The movie tells the sort-of, almost, but not-really "true" story of the first winner of the New York State Lottery, Frank Pesce (who wrote the film and plays a supporting role). Danny Aiello plays the domineering father of the clan, whose son, played by Anthony LaPaglia, is supposedly the luckiest man alive. So lucky, in fact, that it turns out to be a curse. It’s funny with just a touch of schmaltz, as every good Christmas movie should be.

Review: Big Eyes

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Cristoph Waltz and Amy Adams in Big Eyes

Twenty years after his only other biopic (Ed Wood), director Tim Burton returns to the genre with the movie Big Eyes. Co-writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who also wrote Ed Wood) combine elements of the fantastical with the all-too-real story of a man taking credit for a woman's work. Amy Adams (American Hustle, The Muppets) stars as Margaret Keane, whose paintings of haunted-looking children were all the rage in 1960s America ... but her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained) passed them off as his own.

Burton tells Keane's story using a bright palette, giving a smooth look to his 1960s San Francisco setting, growing even bolder in color when the setting moves to Hawaii. There's a blithe feeling to Big Eyes, even as the movie tackles serious issues of the male-dominated mid-century canon of modern art and this female artist's loss of power in the face of her smooth operator/con artist husband. Adams as Margaret speaks with a soft Southern cadence opposite a strident Waltz, whose own bizarro accent here signals that he can't decide which part of the States his character is supposed to be from. 

Review: Into The Woods

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Into The Woods Still Photo

Fairy tales may appeal to young and old alike, but before the contemporary sanitized versions many of these stories, deeply rooted in centuries old folklore, were quite grim and complex with both obvious and not-so-obvious meaning.

In the 1976 book Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim analyzed the symbolic motifs and emotional importance of fairy tales, including those collected and published by the Brothers Grimm. He opined that the darkness and brutality of abandonment and death gave children the ability to process their fears and learn from the moral of each story.

The film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim 1987 musical Into the Woods weaves several favorite tales into one complex story for adults with many of our favorite characters. The base story created for this production is that of "The Baker and his Wife," a barren couple (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who desperately want to have a child.

Movies This Week: December 25-January 1, 2015

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The Interview

Six new releases are now vying for attention in the marketplace for Christmas. It was down to five, but now that Sony has authorized a last-minute limited release for The Interview, area theaters are absolutely packed with options. In terms of holiday titles, quite a few specialty screenings that were scheduled for Alamo Drafthouse Ritz have been scrapped because they added The Interview to Theater 1, but you can catch free daily Kid's Club screenings of Muppet Christmas Carol at the Alamo Slaughter Lane, Ernest Saves Christmas at South Lamar and Arthur Christmas (2D) at Alamo Lakeline each morning through New Year's Eve. 

Aside from that, there aren't many rep screenings happening until the new year. The Ritz will still be offering Monday night's "Homo Arigato!" screening of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, an award-winning 2008 documentary about the queer musician and are hosting their annual New Year's Eve feast for The Apartment in 35mm if you're willing to brave 6th Street.

Movies We've Seen

Big Eyes - Even at his worst, Tim Burton's films usually have a great visual flair and interesting characters. For this true story, he teamed up again with the screenwriters from Ed Wood to tell the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), an artist from the Sixties whose paintings were claimed by her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) as his own. Elizabeth says "Burton's strong fascination and dedication to the artist's work is obvious, making Big Eyes one of his most deeply-felt films in years." Look for her review on Friday. (wide) 

Review: The Imitation Game

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Although working at this year's Austin Film Festival had many great perks, one of the not-so-great parts was missing out on some of the highly-anticipated marquee films.  This is why I jumped at the chance to see The Imitation Game, though I now see that maybe I didn't need to jump so quickly.

It's clear that Benedict Cumberbatch (famously known for his role on Sherlock) carries this film -- not just because the story focuses on his role as Alan Turing, but because his performance stands out amongst all of his famous castmates, including Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance.  

That said, it seems that Cumberbatch's snarky demeanor as Sherlock Holmes is what got him cast in this role. The Imitation Game seems a fitting title because his performance is not unlike the role he's portrayed for the last three seasons on Sherlock. If you're unfamiliar with the show, then perhaps you will not notice this similarity; being a big fan myself, it stood out almost instantly. In fact, most of the cast seemed to be cookie-cutter replicas of characters they have played before: stale, expired and certainly not fresh.

The story is strong, yet it doesn't know which theme it relies on.  Focusing on Turing's famous crack of the Enigma coding machine during WWII, the film stays on course -- until it takes a few pit stops to reflect on Turing's struggle with homosexuality. Although it's a powerful performance, I felt confused on what emotion to resonate with throughout. It seems as if the filmmakers were taking on some sort of studio note to try and make Turing more sympathetic. Although it does achieve this, it feels forced.

It surprises me that The Imitation Game is making its debut on Christmas Day.  Perhaps a marketing team felt that Cumberbatch and Knightly would draw in ticket sales, but the film itself doesn't have that grandiose feel most holiday releases have.  It does seem that this role will probably draw some Oscar buzz for Cumberbatch -- it already seems to have drawn an 8.4 rating out of a scale of 10 on IMDb. Maybe I'm just a holiday release Scrooge; maybe a box-office Christmas miracle will happen after all.

Review: The Interview

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The InterviewThe great The Interview saga of 2014 has reached its apex. After the film was publicized, parent studio Sony Pictures found itself victim to the largest, most destructive and costly computer hacking operation in history. Emails, personal information of employees including social security numbers, and untold other secrets were not only stolen, but partially released by the culprits with a threat to do more damage if the movie was released. Last week, Sony caved to the major theater chains and cancelled the release, spawning innumerable conversations about free speech in the digital age.

And just before that, I got to see it along with 200-ish other attendees at Butt-numb-a-thon, the annual birthday party for AICN founder Harry Knowles where vintage films are celebrated alongside big Hollywood premieres and sneak peeks. The Interview played fifth in the lineup of 12 films, immediately after Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice. Directors Evan Goldberg (This is the End) and Seth Rogen apologized during their introduction, saying they didn't expect to follow a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. In fact, the madcap hilarity was the perfect pick-me-up following the dark and low-key Inherent Vice as we approached the halfway mark of 24 hours of movie watching.

The Interview asks a question many have probably pondered: When a journalist is given an opportunity to interview one of the most hated dictators on the planet, wouldn't the U.S. government become involved to attempt an assassination? And would the journalist want to go through with it? Of course, if you've seen the previous work of those involved in this comedy, you know what to expect. Rogen and costar James Franco are this century's version of The Three Stooges, minus Moe (or perhaps replacing Moe with "Mo," the near-homosexual bro-fessional screen relationship they have together).

In the midst of their antics, I realized The Interview, like many great comedies, doesn't just lampoon its subject. It paints Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un as a caricature, a spoiled man-child twisted by his father into a creature that loves American culture but responds to criticism with extreme force and explosions of rage. But, it also pokes fun at the U.S. government, the traditional news media, and the American public's gluttonous fascination with info-tainment.

Review: Unbroken

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UnbrokenEarlier this year, Louie Zamperini died at the age of 97. He was the son of Italian immigrants, born in 1917 in New York state. His family relocated to Torrance, California where he was on the verge of becoming a hooligan until his older brother Pete got him involved with the school track team. By the time he was 19, he had qualified for the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the 5000-meter race. 

An entire feature-length film could probably be made just about his career as a runner, but the full scope of the man's endurance is told here in Angelina Jolie's second directorial effort. Unbroken really feels like three movies in one, weaving in the story of Zamperini's Olympic success, his time in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and his eventual struggles as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. In the film, British actor Jack O'Connell (Starred Up) gives an emotionally raw and physically demanding career-making performance as Zamperini. 

Joel and Ethan Coen adapated Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 book (with screenplay assistance from Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson) and I think that the first half of the film truly shines as it shifts through time from Zamperini's childhood to the plane crash in 1943 over the Pacific Ocean that found him and two other fellow soldiers (Finn Wittrock, Noah and Domhnall Gleeson, About Time) stuck in a life boat for 47 days. 

There is an intensity to the film's air combat sequences that really make you feel as though you're in the plane with these young men, despite the fact that the quality on some of the effects is limited. As the story unfolds, it truly makes you wonder how anybody could stay so strong for so long. Zamperini never gave up hope, no matter what happened to him, that he would survive. It was difficult inititally for me during the scenes where the men where stranded in the Pacific Ocean to not recall last year's All Is Lost, but that was a fleeting feeling. As days turn to weeks, the desperation between the men becomes palpable and I began to forget that we hadn't even gotten to the worst part of Zamperini's life. 

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: 'Tis the Season for Stanwyck

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Christmas in Connecticut 

In August, the Austin Film Society series "Stanwyck in Her Prime" showcased some of the titles that made Barbara Stanwyck one of the greatest actresses of her generation. It featured such classic Stanwyck staples as Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941), both essential highlights in Stanwyck's stellar career. As a result of the series popularity, and since it's the holidays, I thought I'd spotlight the few but worthwhile Christmas movies Stanwyck starred in.

Not many think of Stanwyck as an actress who would be caught dead in a Christmas movie. Her brand of playing women both tough and tragic made her one of the most formidable screen heroines of all time. And yet, if you are a fan of Stanwyck's, its not surprising to see her in these films since they provided the actress grade-A roles with directors and co-stars also at the top of their game.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

So much of Stanwyck's filmography featured the actress playing complicated women (some good, some bad) in situations fraught with intense conflict. However, Christmas in Connecticut is one of those rare exceptions where the great Stanwyck was able to leave her trademark intensity at home and indulge in one of her most playful roles ever. Stanwyck plays celebrated homemaker Elizabeth Lane, a 1940s Martha Stewart who delights millions of readers with sumptuous recipes and household hints through a wildly popular magazine column. When a rescued soldier (Dennis Morgan) expresses a desire to meet the domestic diva, the magazine's publishing magnate (Sydney Greenstreet) demands that she invite him to her Connecticut farm for a homemade Christmas without realizing that Elizabeth is actually a fraud who can't really cook.

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: Black Christmas

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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 idea of a strange costumed man breaking into my home is terrifying. It's made even more terrifying under fluorescent lights, and with the amount of sharp Christmas-related objects strewn around most homes during the holidays a sleigh ride takes on a new meaning (see the tagline for the 2006 Black Christmas remake).

I first saw Black Christmas in high school, perusing the Blockbuster horror aisle. My two-week winter break was underway and I was tired of watching ABC Family Channel's "25 Days of Christmas." The cover of Black Christmas sold me: a young woman sitting in a rocking chair with a plastic bag over her head. I thought about the plastic bag that covered the winter coat I received as an early Christmas present, which before hung in my closet hopeful for cold weather, but now took on an ominous presence. 

Black Christmas (its original 1974 theatrical title was the corny Silent Night, Evil Night) tells the now-done-to-death story of a group of college women staying in their sorority house during winter break. This decision proves to be more mind-numbing than listening to half-drunk family members rattle on about their problems.

Holiday Favorites 2014: Russell Wayne Groves and 'Christmas Vacation'

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Christmas Vacation Still Photo

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.

Today's pick comes from local actor and producer Russell Wayne Groves (Lord Montagu, Intramural):

Reminiscing on my childhood I can't remember a Christmas without my entire family laughing at Chevy Chase. The physical humor coupled with his smoky hiss laugh is what the holidays were and are still made of.

It’s very rare for a film to have immense re-watchability, but Christmas Vacation somehow exhibits that quality in bucketloads. I fondly remember in high school performing Chevy’s monologue "Hap-Hap Happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby danced..." in front of my drama class, probably to the dismay of my teacher.

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.

Other Worlds Austin Interview: Andrew Olson, 'Blackout'

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 Andrew Olson

Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Austin-based filmmaker Andrew Olson's short movie Blackout made its world premiere at last weekend's inaugural Other Worlds Austin, the city's first dedicated science-fiction movie festival. The horror-thriller screened before the feature Apt 3D

An online cast and crew call for Blackout decribed the Austin-shot short as "Mad Max meets Pitch Black." It takes place in the future, where a survivor in the fight against the monstrous Reapers comes face-to-face with them. 

Olson, a University of Texas at Austin alumnus, said Blackout, still on the festival circuit, was created to help promote a future fundraising campaign for a "feature or episodic version" of the short.

Slackerwood: Did you initially consider Blackout to be science fiction?

Andrew Olson: Yes, I always considered Blackout science fiction and horror.

Other Worlds Austin: Fest Has Lift-Off!

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Other Worlds Austin CollageThe Other Worlds Austin science-fiction film festival blasted off to a great start last Thursday, with a pre-apocalyptic happy hour at The Tigress cocktail bar where several of us tried the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. I really appreciated that social events were scheduled around the screenings. Saturday morning's "2014: A Brunch Odyssey" was held at The Goodnight, and provided a great opportunity to network with other attendees including filmmakers.

Despite the fact that this was the first year for this film festival, which only spanned Thursday and Friday evenings and all day Saturday -- primarily at Galaxy Highland -- I was impressed by the number of filmmakers who traveled from as far as Los Angeles and New York to support their films. Just a few of the filmmakers in attendance included writer/director Cidney Hue (Odessa), director Bryan Costanich (Slumptown), and Apt 3D writer/director/actor Zack Imbrogno and editor/actress Maxxe Sternbaum.

Ready, Set, Fund: Crossing the Finish Line

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Ready, Set, Fund is a column about crowdfunding and fundraising endeavors related to Austin and Texas independent film projects.

'Tis the season for love, joy, and helping your friends get their films funded. With the holidays fast approaching, most of us have Christmas shopping and decorating on our mind. We're bringing you this month's "Ready, Set, Fund" with the hope that you'll spread a little extra holiday cheer, perhaps to some filmmakers in need of that extra $5 to meet their fundraising goal. Here are a few that are finishing up in the month of December...

Leslie is a project that's now been going on for almost ten years. Following the infamous Albert Leslie Cochran (known to veteran Austinites as just "Leslie"), the movie is described as an independent documentary that tells the untold story of Leslie and how his bizarre approach to activism catapulted him into becoming an unlikely civic symbol in Austin, Texas.  Filmmakers Tracy Frazier and Ruby C. Martin are seeking funds to now complete the project all the way through post-production; their deadline is December 21. You can see more about the film in the video below:

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: It Happened on 5th Avenue

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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.

Not many remember, or even know of, this touching holiday comedy's existence. I suppose that's fair enough since the release date for this Christmas-set film was actually Easter. It also didn't help that It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) was released in between future classics It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). As if this weren't enough, the movie went out of circulation in 1990 without even a single TV airing until a low-key DVD release several years ago saved it from holiday movie obscurity.

It's a real shame, since It Happened on 5th Avenue is not only just as good an offering as those other two classics, but it is also one of those rare films with a blend of humor and pathos that washes over you without warning. Each winter when millionaire Michael O'Connor (Charles Ruggles) leaves his 5th Avenue mansion for his home in Virginia, a warm-hearted drifter named Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) moves in and makes the large estate his own for the duration of the season. This season however, Aloysius has taken in a young war veteran (Don DeFore) as well as two of his fellow soldiers and their families. When circumstances force Michael back to his New York mansion, he is appalled, but proceeds to conceal his identity as he finds himself spending the holidays with his unexpected guests.

Other Worlds Austin 2014: Science-Fiction Shorts

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In my book, short filmmakers (not judged by their height but the length of their movies) were the true guardians of the Galaxy -- Galaxy Highland 10 Theatres, that is. 

My attendance Friday at the inaugural Other Worlds Austin science-fiction movie festival will be saved in my mental hard drive; not only was this Austin's first dedicated science-fiction movie festival, but my first attendance at one. Oh, I've had many informal science-fiction movie fests on my couch in front of the TV (alone because none of my friends or family members enjoy science-fiction, they're more into rom-coms). 

The Other Worlds Austin Cthulhu-like logo sold me instantly. It brought back many memories, like when I first heard about H.P. Lovecraft, author of the short story "The Call of Cthulhu." I was in middle school, stuck at home sick and bored, so I dug around in a box of a family member's belongings and found a DVD of the first episode, Dreams in the Witch-House, of the now sadly defunct Showtime series Masters of Horror. This led to me scrounging my local public library for anything associated with Lovecraft, who, despite his sexism and racism, probably has the coolest last name. Ever. My anthropoid homie Cthulhu and I have been tight ever since. 

This "passage to the unknown" lines up well with the short movies I saw at OWA for its second shorts program (aptly titled "Passage to the Unknown"). One short even almost made me cry. 

Other Worlds Austin Review: The Well

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The Well still photoA recent New York Times article reports that droughts are intensifying across the United States western and southwestern regions, with California, Nevada and Oregon bearing the brunt. Texas is also experiencing drought across much of the state, and prolonged dry conditions put a considerably strain on water supplies for all uses. Many states are using innovative technologies -- aquifer storage and recovery, desalination, water "scalping" -- but are still forced into placing restrictions on water use, with fights over water rights ensuing between local government, landowners and consumers.

This contemporary scenario supports the premise of production designer Thomas Hammock's (The Guest, You're Next) writing and directorial debut The Well, a "science factual" post-apocalyptic film thattakes place in a barren Oregon valley ten years after the last rainfall. Seventeen-year-old Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) hides away in the attic of The Wallace Farm for Wayward Youth caring for fellow orphan Dean (Booboo Stewart), venturing out to check on the few remaining neighbors while scavenging for resources including water from their well and a vital piece of equipment to power an abandoned Cessna. Kendal and Dean dream of escaping in the plane, but they are thwarted by Dean's ailments and both vagrants and hunters that roam the valley in search of any remaining water.

Movies This Week: December 5-11, 2014

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Listen Up Philip

Talk about a calm before the storm. This is one of those rare weekends where there are no new wide releases hitting multiplexes, but that means there are a lot of specialty films taking advantage of that fact and sneaking into area theaters. You can see all of this week's new releases below, but first we'll take a look at some of the unique repertory screenings booked around town over the next week. 

The Austin Film Society is starting a three-week series turning the spotlight on comedian Jerry Lewis. It begins tonight at the Marchesa with one of his biggest hits, 1963's The Nutty Professor. Screening from a DCP (digital print), it also plays again on Sunday evening. On Wednesday, they'll feature Rodrigo Reyes' Purgatorio for Doc Nights. The AFS website describes it as a "lyrical meditation on the border between the US and Mexico." Thursday night brings another "Essential Cinema" pick from the current series focusing on contemporary Filipino cinema. Magkakabaung (The Coffin Maker) is a 2014 feature from Jason Paul Laxamana, who also wrote and edited the film. 

The Alamo Drafthouse Ritz is hosting a Silent Comedy Cavalcade on Saturday afternoon with four silent short films on 16mm featuring a live score by DJ Amelia Foxtrot! You'll get 1925's His Wooden Wedding starting Charley Chase, Charlie Chaplin's 1916 Behind The Screen, Buster Keaton's The High Sign from 1921 and Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd starring in Hal Roach's On The Loose from 1931. On Monday night they've got another great pick from 1999: Steven Soderbergh's incredible film The Limey in 35mm and Tuesday brings another edition of "Experimental Response Cinema" with Yvonne Rainer's 1980 film Journeys from Berlin/1971 screening in 16mm. 

Holiday Favorites 2014: Claudette Godfrey Can't Resist 'The Christmas Toy'

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Still from The Christmas Toy

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.

Today's pick is from Claudette Godfrey, Short Film Programmer and Operations Manager for SXSW:

My job requires that I watch movies every day for 6+ months of the year, but I can honestly say my favorite time to watch movies is around the holidays. So, while there are so many movies from my childhood I love to re-watch each year. Like Home Alone! Scrooged!! The Santa Clause!! And of course Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, which is the creepiest and best Nutcracker ever because of Maurice Sendak's amazing brain.

BUT, the one that truly speaks to 6-year-old Claudette the most is The Christmas Toy. Made in 1986, a few years before Jim Henson passed, it first appeared on TV just before my first birthday. Thankfully, my mother is a Henson fanatic (and a recording-things-to-VHS fanatic) and taped it off TV at some point so we could watch it (multiple times) each year.

Bears Fonte Inaugurates Other Worlds Austin Festival

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Bears Fonte Still PhotoScience fiction has long been a favorite genre for me in literature and film. At Texas A&M, I was a member of Cepheid Variable, a student group devoted to science fiction, fantasy, horror, science and technology. I first saw John Carpenter's cult classic Dark Star at a Cepheid Variable B-Movie Night, and Something Wicked This Way Comes as part of Cepheid's 1984 AggieCon, the largest student-run fan convention in the world.

My insatiable appetite for science fiction has me often yearning for more of it at local festivals, so I was ectastic to discover that Austin's first science fiction film festival, Other Worlds Austin, will be held at Galaxy Highland from Thursday, December 4 through Saturday, December 6. Even more exciting is that former Austin Film Festival programmer Bears Fonté is the fest's founder and director of programming. I've long been a fan of Fonté's programming and we share a passion for short films. Fonté has written and directed his own films including the thriller iCrime and the sci-fi dramatic short The Secret Keeper.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Fonté over lunch at our neighborhood pub. We discussed how the late Housecore Horror Fest founder Corey Mitchell encouraged Fonté to start his own science-fiction festival, and offered him support and advice. Five percent of all proceeds from Other Worlds Austin ticket sales and merchandise will be given to the foundation that was started to fundraise for Mitchell's family.

Here's what Fonté had to say about what attendees can expect at the inaugural Other Worlds Austin Film Festival this week.

Looking Back at the Film Class of 1999

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Virgin Suicides

Back in 1999, I was a teenage film geek sneaking into R-rated movies. Without question, one of the titles I saw that year which left a lasting impression was The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), the superb adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's psychological thriller novel starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow. The camera moves, performances, costumes, cinematography -- all of it took me on a cinematic journey I had not experienced until then. However, that movie was only a taste of the varied class of movies that made up 1999 at the cinema.

From edgy comedies like Election (1999), to haunting dramas like The Virgin Suicides (1999) (pictured at top), the lead up to the millenium brought forth a year full of one celluloid gem after another. In honor of the Alamo Drafthouse's 12-week tribute to 1999, which runs through mid-December, I thought I'd revisit the year in question and examine how such a vibrant burst of filmmaking touched many aspects of the moviemaking world.

The year saw many high-profile directors temporarily abandon their trademark genres in pursuit of projects which allowed them a chance to spread their directorial wings. Slasher maestro Wes Craven directed Meryl Streep to an Oscar nomination as an inner-city violin teacher in Music of the Heart (1999 -- one of the better "inspirational teacher" movies). David Lynch took a break from the dark and subversive for a softer, reflective tone in the beautifully moving drama The Straight Story (1999) while Joel Schumacher stepped away from the heroics of Batman and John Grisham to film 8mm (1999); a creepy inside look at the snuff film underworld. Clashes with Adrien Brody didn't stop Spike Lee from exploring one of the most bizarre serial killer cases in New York's history with Summer of Sam (1999). And though it may have featured Johnny Depp and vivid production qualities, the usual trademark whimsy and playful offbeat touches were absent from Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999); making it the director's sole true horror film.

Holiday Favorites 2014: Jennifer Harlow and Mark Reeb Head for 'Home' and 'Rent'

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Still from Rent (2005)

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.

Today's Holiday Favorites are from a couple active in the Austin film community. Filmmaker Jennifer Harlow's most recent movie, the feature The Sideways Light (my review, my interview), premiered at the Austin Film Festival in October. Her husband, actor Mark Reeb, has appeared in a number of local films, including The Overbrook Brothers, Eve of Understanding and the short Happy Voodoo ... as well as The Sideways Light.

From Jennifer Harlow:

There are lots of movies I watch every year at Christmas: Love Actually, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harold and Kumar. Here I make my case for Christopher Columbus's Rent as the best Christmas movie ever, or "Jesse L. Martin Jesse L. Martin Jesse L. Martin."

"December 24, 9 pm, Eastern Standard Time. From here on in, I shoot without a script." Thus begins the story of Mark, Roger, Mimi, Maureen, Joanne, Tom (Jesse L. Martin!!!) and Angel. These friends and lovers, artists all, are trying to survive in New York's East Village in the face of drug addiction, AIDS and poverty. They struggle with being an artist versus selling out, lack of inspiration, and fear of attachment, loss and death. Their mantra at a support group meeting has long been a favorite quote.