May 2015

Lone Star Cinema: Kid Blue

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Kid Blue poster

"Of all liars, the smoothest and most convincing is memory."* I saw Kid Blue at the Paramount during Austin Film Festival 1997, and I remember a lively, responsive audience that loved a very weird and very funny movie from 1973. Afterward, the film's star Dennis Hopper and screenwriter (and Austin author) Bud Shrake had a rollicking good time onstage telling crazy stories about shooting the movie in Mexico.

I've been encouraging people to get their hands on the movie ever since, but it's not on DVD or Blu-ray and it hasn't been screened in Austin since AFF. Fortunately, it's available online via Amazon, although the picture/sound quality is not stellar.

Over the past 17 years (damn, it cannot have been that long), I overhyped myself on Kid Blue. But it's a fascinating movie, if not as funny as I remembered it. As a 1970s oddity, the counterculture Western falls somewhere between the barely comprehensible Eggshells (Tobe Hooper's first feature, read Don's review) and a movie I like far more than it deserves, Harry and Walter Go to New York.

The counterculture Western opens with a botched train robbery by a gang that includes Bick (Hopper), aka the notorious Kid Blue. Sick of the outlaw life, he decides to go straight and get a legitimate job, and he ends up in the small Texas town of Dime Box.

And it is in Dime Box (the movie's original title, incidentally) that this long-haired ex-bandit encounters The Man, in all his incarnations. All Bick wants to do is lead a normal, law-abiding life, but Sheriff "Mean John" Simpson (Ben Johnson) is automatically suspicious, and other self-important townsmen dismiss and belittle him as a clumsy, naive hoodlum. (Hopper was in his thirties at the time, but he looks like a baby.) He finds a potential friend in Reese (Warren Oates), but his wife (Lee Purcell) seems a little too friendly. 

Kid Blue may be set in the early 20th century (it's a bit vague on that point) but the attitudes are pure 1973, with the more pious townspeople spouting cliches about patriotism, the unemployed/poor bringing it on themselves, young men needing to learn respect for their elders, and native Americans being "savages." The local preacher has an interesting drug habit, and the town's Native Americans are continually smoking something mind-altering.

Au Revoir, and Don't Forget to Feed the Parrot

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Last Night at the Alamo 2007

"Good-bye. Don't forget to feed the parrot!" shrieked Flora, who disliked this prolongation of the ceremony of saying farewell, as every civilized traveller must.

"What parrot?" they all shrieked back from the fast-receding platform, just as they were meant to do.

But it was too much trouble to reply. Flora contented herself with muttering, "Oh, any parrot, bless you all," and with a final affectionate wave of her hand to Mrs. Smiling, she drew back into the carriage and, opening a fashion journal, composed herself for the journey.

--Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

Saying farewell to Slackerwood has been very difficult. And I do think of it as "au revoir" -- I'm still in Austin, I'm still writing, and so are many of the current Slackerwood contributors. You'll see us again.

Movies This Year: Our Reviews of Upcoming Releases

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KRISHA

Slackerwood may be winding down, but the Austin film and festival scene is going strong. We've reviewed a number of movies at local and national film fests that have not yet had a full theatrical release. Many of them have Austin and/or Texas ties.

Reviews for movies with upcoming Austin theatrical/VOD release dates, where available:

Slackerwood: Where We're All Going (We Hope)

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Slackerwood contributors 2013

I originally said that today -- Wednesday, May 27 -- would be the last day Slackerwood would publish new content. But we're going to finish tomorrow instead. As I've said often, well, it is called Slackerwood after all. So please come back on Thursday for a farewell and one final Lone Star Cinema that I always said I would write and never did (until now).

I'm very pleased that we'll still get to enjoy writing from Slackerwood contributors at other websites. Of course, this list is subject to change, but here's what I know right now:

Debbie's Fantastic and Favorite Film Memories

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Debbie with Jim JarmuschFive years and 51 weeks -- that's when I was added to the Slackerwood website, although my official first article about a beloved made-in-Texas film, True Stories, was actually published on June 24, 2009. Coincidentally, my first Slackerwood-related article, "Coffee and Cigarettes at the Alamo," was written two years earlier on June 25, 2007 for the Alamo Downtown Blog-a-Thon, co-hosted by Slackerwood and Blake Ethridge of formerly of Cinema is Dope and now the Museum of Cinema.

Sharing my personal experience of handling the Coffee and Cigarettes director Jim Jarmusch at the original Alamo Drafthouse (on Colorado) during SXSW Film Festival 2004 was truly a defining moment in my career in film journalism. That same year I recall Louis Black assisting at the door at a special midnight screening of Hellboy at the Paramount, with star Ron Perlman talking to fans outside the theater until the wee hours of the morning.

I truly believe that without the efforts and support of local film industry vanguards like Louis Black of Austin Chronicle and SXSW, and Tim and Karrie League of Alamo Drafthouse, I would not have met Slackerwood's founder and editor Jette Kernion. Most if not all of my initial conversations with Jette about film took place on the outdoor patio at Alamo South Lamar either during subsequent SXSW and Fantastic Fest film festivals.

On that special night in 2004 that I blogged about, I was introduced to writer and director Jonathan Demme by Black, and assisted Crispin Glover and Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann (Go Further, Know Your Mushrooms) in and out of the screening at the personal -- and quite polite -- request of Jarmusch. Over the years of writing for Slackerwood I've encountered Mann on his annual visits to Austin for SXSW, and enjoy hearing about his latest film projects. Additionally he graciously gave Courtney Cobb (Crafting a Nation) and me some documentary filmmaking tips while we were in pre-production for Pushing Cadence.

Fantastic Fest, SXSW Film Festival and Austin Film Festival provided me with great opportunities to cover great independent film and network with filmmakers, actors and industry representatives from around the world. Six years ago I never would have thought that I would cover a film festival outside of Austin such as Dallas International Film Festival, let alone Sundance Film Festival. And yet I've made it to Park City for the last three years to cover both Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals simultaneously to the best of my capability.

Film on Tap: Pass the Bubbly

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The HighballFilm on Tap is a column about the many ways that beer (or sometimes booze) and cinema intersect in Austin.

Pursuing multiple and consecutive careers in film, water and craft beer can be quite challenging to juggle more often than not, so I'm extremely appreciative for the patience, understanding and support that Slackerwood founder Jette Kernion has given me over the last six years. One of the columns that I've been most proud of is "Film on Tap," launched during Austin Craft Beer Week in October 2011.

Born out of Slackerwood's "How to Drink Like an Austinite" guides, I've enjoyed sharing memorable experiences of well-crafted beer and film -- as well as skillfully mixed cocktails and film curation.

While waiting out the torrential rains last Saturday evening, I enjoyed a delectable cherry-infused bourbon Old-Fashioned at The Highball and observed the crack bar staff as they served theatergoers, bar patrons and karaoke enthusiasts. Of all the bars and restaurants in town, there's probably no crew that can match the high frenetic pace and demands of a diverse crowd in the skillful manner that The Highball team handles nightly.

Review: The Connection

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The Connection Still photoWhereas in many crime dramas the difference between the good guy and the bad guy is painted in black and white, writer and director Cedric Jimenez brings the more complex nature of both sides in the emotionally gripping movie The Connection. Based on the true story of French law enforcement's battle with the heroin-dependent drug traffic among France, New York and the rest of the world, this award-worthy film focuses more on the characterization of key players in the battle rather than rely on hyperviolence.

Despite his reluctance, French magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) is transferred from the juvenile to the organized crime division in the middle of mob wars in Marseilles, France. As a former gambling addict, Michel channels his obsessive nature into getting to the bottom of the complex network of drug lords, discovering that corruption exists at the top and around him.

The cornerstone to all the corruption is Gaëtan "Tany" Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), a racketeer who offers "protection" through the violent persuasive nature of his gang: Bimbo, Franky Manzoni (Moussa Maaskri), and Le Fou (Benoit Magimel). Zampa's expansion from prostitution and gambling into manufacturing and selling heroin places him at the top of the Marseilles crime scene, making him a target as well for the police and competitors.

Box-Office Alternatives: Deep Impact

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Deep Impact

Its been a while since we've had a worthwhile disaster movie at the cineplex. Back in the 1970s, the genre was a staple of the summer movie season with audiences devouring multi-strand plots, which saw stars both old and new struggling for survival against any and every catastrophe an ambitious movie producer could think of.

Despite giving audiences some bona fide classics such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974), the genre has been rather dead as of late with lackluster offerings such as Poseidon (a weak 2006 imitation of the far better original) and the overly confident 2012 (2009). Yet this week, the genre hopes for a resurgence with the impressive looking San Andreas (2015). Starring Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas details a rescue pilot’s frantic search for his family following the most powerful and devastating earthquake ever to hit the West Coast.

One of the few noteworthy offerings following the post-70s boom of disaster movies was the thoughtful and still entertaining Deep Impact (1998). A high-school astronomy student (Elijah Wood) discovers a random comet that's headed directly for Earth, promising  destruction of cataclysmic proportions. While the President (Morgan Freeman) tries to maintain order in the land, a team of experts led by a famed astronaut (Robert Duvall) attempts to stop the comet and an ambitious journalist (Tea Leoni) resolves to come to terms with her past.

Ready, Set, Fund: Preserving Austin's History

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AD Stenger Home"Ready, Set, Fund" is a column about crowdfunding and related fundraising endeavors for Austin and Texas independent film projects.

It's hard to believe that it has been over 3.5 years since the first "Ready, Set, Fund" column appeared here on Slackerwood. This recurring column has served as an incredible vehicle to immerse our writers in local film productions. From set visits to personal interviews with cast and crew, we are all grateful for getting a behind-the-scenes perspective and following film projects from "cradle to grave" over these last few years. Even when a campaign falls short of its funding goals, many filmmakers find other creative avenues to accomplish their film production goals.

One such creative talent is Austinite and local performer Troy Dillinger, who has been championing the preservation of historical homes in the hills of west Austin and around Barton Springs and Town Lake. Dillinger has been quite active at Austin City Council meetings as well as on social media to alert Austinites of the pending destruction of several mid-century modern custom homes built by Arthur Dallas "A.D." Stenger throughout his 55-year career. Each home was custom designed for the lot they were built on, often built with repurposed stone from each lot.

Photo Flashback: Rodriguez Pop-Up Museum at SXSW 2015

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One of the many interesting events to spring up around South by Southwest in recent years is the Robert Rodriguez Museum, a pop-up gallery first appearing in 2014 in which Rodriguez exhibits pieces from his collection and the Frazetta family collection, which he now curates. Most people know Rodriguez only as a director, but film is only one of his creative outlets, and the tours he conducted at SXSW this March provided an enlightening peek into his creative process.

Review: In the Name of My Daughter

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In The Name Of My Daughter

All I knew in advance about In the Name of My Daughter was that it was based on a true story, just like another of French auteur Andre Techine's recent films, The Girl On The Train. I've been a fan of his work for almost as long as I've been watching world cinema. Rendez-vousMy Favorite SeasonWild Reeds and Changing Times represent some of the best that French cinema has had to offer in the last 30 years.

It really says something about the strong fashion sense of the French (or the fact that I watched it from a screener instead of on the big screen) that I didn't even realize this movie was set in the 70s until I glanced over at the press notes about 15 minutes in to verify an actor's name. There just wasn't anything to indicate the time period at all, I presumed it was a contemporary tale. I was very wrong, although the film does end up spanning over 30 years before the end credits roll. 

With In The Name of My Daughter (whose original title, L'homme qu'on aimait trop, oddly translates as The Man Who Was Loved Too Much), Techine teams up with legendary actress Catherine Denueve for the seventh time and gives her the juicy role of Renee Le Roux -- a casino magnate on the French Riviera who has inherited the Palais de la Mediterranee from her late husband. The film, based on her memoirs, gets underway on the shores of Nice in 1976.

Review: Poltergeist

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PoltergeistOn Thursday, I saw the Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember)-directed movie Poltergeist, a remake of Tobe Hooper's 1982 masterpiece. David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz the Great and Powerful, Rise of the Guardians) re-adapted the script from the original film, which had been conceived and co-written by Steven Spielberg. I expected the new movie to completely suck, so I'm surprised to disagree with many of my fellows and say that it's not great, but it's sort of okay.

If you haven't watched the 1982 Poltergeist, which stars Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams and Zelda Rubinstein, do yourself a favor and stop reading now. Find it on disc or online. It's the apex of family horror films and the greatest haunted house movie ever made, so it's little surprise Kenan would be chosen to direct the remake, based on his earlier Monster House. Hooper's original figures heavily in this review, and you should be familiar with the story before you continue.

The differences in this version are immediately obvious. It's 21 minutes shorter, and everything feels rushed. Hooper's version was a slow burn that began with odd, whimsical events and descended into terrifying madness. The script Kenan directed jumps immediately into malicious attacks, before the family even moves into the house.

Before I dig into the weaker points of the new Poltergeist, I want to address the things I liked. I enjoyed Sam Rockwell more in this role than Craig T. Nelson in the original. Rockwell is more likable, more easygoing and more fallible. His chemistry with Rosemarie DeWitt is spot-on, and the kids are phenomenal. They play a larger role in this script, and they are all more believable characters. (Though I wonder why bother renaming them all?) Kenan uses light and shadow to great effect, and he doesn't shy away from the use of modern technology, so it's clear he's not trying to reproduce the original.

There are a few things I feel were missteps. While 3D is de rigueur for most studio releases lately, a number of shots are staged as if to specifically prove that you're seeing the film in 3D. A car placed immediately in the foreground of a wide shot of the house, early in the film, was annoying and distracting. Kenan cut the scene I found scariest in Hooper's version, but he spends a large portion of the film taking the camera into the "other side" breaking the rule of "don't show, tell."

Movies This Week: May 22-28, 2015

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 In The Name Of My Daughter

It's time for my final Movies This Week post here at Slackerwood. I just want to thank Jette for bringing me on to contribute to this site over the last two years. I've really had a great time covering the local repertory scene and highlighting each week's new releases here in Austin. I've got one last review that will run over the weekend and then next week this site will cease publishing new material. I hope that you've found this a valuable resource and I'm going to leave you with a new one. 

My good friend Zack McGhee is one of the biggest cinephiles I know. We met many years ago when we both lived in the Dayton, Ohio area and he worked not only for the Dayton Daily News, but also was a projectionist at the Little Art Theatre. Somehow, both of our jobs brought us here and we've been loving the film scene in Austin for years now. Not only does Zack host the My Favorite Movie podcast (on which Jette was a recent guest), but he also just launched the Austin Rep Calendar online. If you bookmark his site, I guarantee you that it will make your moviegoing life in Austin a more enjoyable experience, especially since it allows you to sort by screenings projected on film and gives you three weeks of listings so you can plan ahead. 

A cursory glance at the calendar shows that there is plenty to be excited about, this week and beyond. The Paramount Summer Classic Film Series is, of course, kicking off another season tonight. Casablanca and Manhattan both screen in 35mm this evening and everything screening at the Paramount itself is projected on film (the Stateside screenings, however, are all digital). Tomorrow afternoon, they've got Brad Bird's The Iron Giant as a preview of their Family Film Festival and then evening shows of Sunset Boulevard and Chinatown for Saturday and Sunday. 

Review: Tomorrowland

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Tomorrowland posterThe last 10 minutes of a movie are often what shapes our opinion most -- a strong ending can soften our feelings about a bad movie, and a weak, tone-deaf ending can spoil a filmgoing experience far more thoroughly than any overly revealing trailer or review. Tomorrowland is often a breathtakingly gorgeous movie with charming performances, but the ending is so unabashedly lesson-driven and heavy-handed that it's difficult to remember anything but its flaws and missteps.

The movie's opening and closing scenes are meant as bookends, but these are bookends created by your clumsy kid brother in shop class on the day the nails ran short. The first scenes in particular feel like a hurried reshoot/restructure to get George Clooney onscreen earlier. Frank (Clooney) and Casey (Britt Robertson) are speaking directly into the camera, making a video for an unknown audience. With interruptions from Casey, Frank begins setting up the story through flashbacks to his childhood.

Young Frank (Thomas Robinson) visits the 1964 World's Fair -- which includes the Disney "It's a Small World" exhibit, natch -- to win an inventors' contest with his jet pack that doesn't ... quite ... work. He fails to impress the judge (Hugh Laurie) but young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) manages to sneak him access to a hidden, magical land, aka Tomorrowland (based on the Disney theme park).

The movie then abruptly shifts gears to Casey's story, which seems to be set in the near future -- her father is a NASA engineer, and she keeps trying to sabotage attempts to close Cape Canaveral down. Her unbounded optimism, interest in science and desire to fix everything catches Athena's attention, and she decides to introduce Casey to Tomorrowland too ... in the hopes that she can convince Frank, who's become even more you-kids-get-off-my-lawn than Clint Eastwood, to help them solve drastic problems affecting Tomorrrowland and the contemporary world.

Unfortunately, the entire concept of the Tomorrowland world feels weirdly Ayn Rand-ian and the movie feels at times like a pro-STEM propaganda piece aimed at kids. Filmmaker Brad Bird has never been subtle about messaging in family films such as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but stellar storytelling with compelling characters took front and center. In addition, Tomorrowland is hampered by obvious Disney brand marketing, as off-putting as it was in Saving Mr. Banks.

Box-Office Alternatives: Intolerable Cruelty

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It's so rare to find a summer blockbuster that isn't based on a comic book or video game, that when one comes along, I'm immediately drawn to it. I'll admit that is my primary reason for wanting to check out Tomorrowland (2015), which stars George Clooney as a former boy genius who embarks on a quest to a fictional world where science and imagination know no bounds.

Tomorrowland also looks to give Clooney a role unlike any other he's taken on as a paranoid recluse with powerful secrets lurking inside his head. In honor of Tomorrowland's release, I thought I'd revisit one of my favorite Clooney roles which, although unknown to many, remains loved by those who have seen it.

Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, Intolerable Cruelty (2003) stars Clooney as Miles Massey, Los Angeles' most cunning divorce attorney, who is able to make any cheating spouse in town look like the most innocent of victims. When he encounters the beautiful Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Miles' views on love, marriage and divorce change forever.

TAMI Flashback: In Memory of Lost Austin

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Austin the View from Here

This article is the last for Slackerwood in a series about the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) video library. For an overview of the TAMI site, refer to this article.

As Slackerwood ends its long and successful run, so does my favorite Slackerwood beat, the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) Flashback series. In this final installment, TAMI Flashback returns to the place and time where it started: mid-20th century Austin, with two videos that capture the River City in two very different eras.

Produced by the Austin Chamber of Commerce in 1943, Austin the Friendly City shows us a friendly city, alright. The film opens with scrolling text that only someone drinking the Chamber of Commerce Kool-Aid could have written:

Austin is one of the loveliest and most advanced cities in the nation. So outstanding, indeed, that each year, hundreds of families move here in order to benefit from her fine schools, her excellent business conditions, her friendly atmosphere and to enjoy the spell of beauty which the enchanting tower lights cast over the towering oaks and moss-covered walls of a city rich in historical heritage.

A Classic Movie Fan's Dream: 2015 Summer Film Classics at the Paramount

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Stills from Pariah, When Harry Met Sally, Singin' in the Rain, Shadow of a Doubt and The Awful Truth

I've compiled a list of my favorites from the Paramount Summer Film Classics schedule for Slackerwood since 2012, so it's with this post that the upcoming end of the blog really hits me. It's been a great run, folks.

This 100th year of the Paramount Theatre means there's quite a schedule in store for us this summer. As in years past, films will screen at both Paramount and Stateside. Tickets are $12, which you can purchase online or at the venue. If you plan to see more than a few of these movies, it's probably worthwile to invest in FlixTix (a pack of 10 tickets for $60) or become a Film Fan.

And don't forget your admission covers double features! Without further ado, my last Paramount Summer Classics roundup for Slackerwood:

  • The Iron Giant (1999) -- The animated science-fiction story of a boy and his giant metal alien friend, which I reviewed last year for Lone Star Cinema, is a lead-in to the theater's Family Film Festival in July. (Sat 5/23 @ Paramount)
  • Female filmmakers -- Pariah played the 2011 Austin Film Festival and the coming-of-age drama was one of the best films I saw that year [Don's review]. The Dee Rees film will be paired with Agnes Varda's Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) on Thurs-Fri, 6/25-26 at Stateside. It's all Penny Marshall at the Paramount that weekend, as her baseball classic A League of Their Own (1992) and the comedy Big (1988) play Saturday evening, 6/27, and Sunday afternoon, 6/28.

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

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<em />Mad Max: Fury RoadThe bar is set this week for top action flick of the summer, and Mad Max: Fury Road is the one to beat. It has been an improbable 30 years since the last entry in the Mad Max series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but director George Miller returns with a joyride so big, so incredibly over-the-top, it's got the potential to redefine what we expect in an action film.

Miller immerses us in the post-apocalyptic world he established through the previous films, which we can now see has never stopped devolving and increasing in madness, chaos and destruction as the last vestiges of life continue to die off. The title "Mad Max" in fact is something of a misnomer, as Max Rockatansky, now played by Tom Hardy, is clearly the most sane person left in what has become the outer circle of Hell.

The world in Mad Max: Fury Road is the phenomenally stunning product of concept and art direction. The fully realized society is based on a religion devoted to its leader, who presides over warriors who feed on milk harvested from human slaves and who wish only to die in his service. Great machines powered by human feet lift vehicles from the bowels of his stronghold -- vehicles that might drive on stage at the heaviest of heavy-metal concerts, smoking frankencars pieced together, covered in skulls, with men chained to them spitting gasoline into their intakes to increase the RPMs.

Character names are just as ostentatious: Toast the Knowing, Rictus Erectus, The People Eater and The Splendid Angharad ... to name a few. Every detail of this fantasy is magnified, hyperbolized to an explosive extent. Michael Bay is no longer the director I refer to as the "best at blowing shit up."

We don't need another hero, but we get one in the bad-ass form of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). This is her story, and on Fury Road, Max is just along for the ride. There is no attempt to be subtle about the strong feminist message in the film, and that's A-OK. I would have been every bit as happy if this film had left out the Max character, and I'd love to see a set of movies in this world with Theron taking the lead.

Movies This Week: May 15-21, 2015

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 Pitch Perfect 2

The Violet Crown Cinema has an encore screening of its Arthouse Monthly series Sunday night with the acclaimed new documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. In her review, Jette says it's a "pleasant and sometimes touching profile of Caroll Spinney, who has spent decades portraying both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street and elsewhere." Tickets are on the verge of selling out, but if you miss out on this one-time local screening, the film is available now on cable and digital VOD from Tribeca Film. In addition, Violet Crown is holding over Austin-shot indie Arlo and Julie (Elizabeth's review) for another week, with daily screenings.

The Austin Film Society kicks off the weekend with Jess Franco's 1971 avant-garde horror film Vampyros Lesbos, which screens tonight at the Marchesa. On Sunday afternoon, AFS is teaming up with the Austin chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for a 35mm benefit screening of the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a 2005 profile of the local musician/artist.

On Wednesday night, Richard Linklater is presenting one of his favorite films of the 80s, Tim Hunter's River's Edge in 35mmHe'll be on hand for an introduction and then to lead a post-film discussion for the "Jewels In The Wasteland" series. The AFS "Songs Of The South" Essential Cinema series is featuring Intruder In The Dust on Thursday night. This 1949 feature from Clarence Brown tells the story of a black farmer falsely accused of murder in the South and is presented in 35mm.

Review: Pitch Perfect 2

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Still from Pitch Perfect 2

The Barden Bellas, with their zany vocal antics, are back.  Elizabeth Banks, who produced Pitch Perfect the first, directs the new sequel -- as well as returning to her role as a cappella commentator Gail. Pitch Perfect 2 shows the collegiate group three years after their win at nationals.

So much is packed into this two-hour musical comedy, but I'll try to break it down for you. Beca (Anna Kendrick), with dreams of being a music producer, snags an internship at a studio and doesn't tell her friends. Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) ruins a Bella performance at Lincoln Center and the group's performing duties as current national titleholders are stripped away. New freshman/legacy Bella Emily (Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit) joins the group and they plan to compete in an international a cappella competition in Denmark.

Pitch Perfect 2 skips from situation to situation -- it's more like a longform sitcom than any other movie I've seen recently. Unfortunately, the script includes some lazy and ridiculous writing. A Latina Bella (Chrissie Fit) is relegated to stereotype, stuck with cringeworthy comments to the other girls about her brother trying to barter her for a chicken, or her likely being deported after college and coming back illegally. Besides her flipping skills, her character is basically a caricature. The limitations of the first film haven't been improved on in this regard.

HCFF Review: Mount Lawrence

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Mount Lawrence posterImagine cycling more than 6,000 miles cross-country, mending dozens of popped tires, camping out in thunderstorms, coping with unexpected injuries ... and documenting it with video cameras. Filmmaker Chandler Wild takes on the challenge in the documentary Mount Lawrence, and includes the audience in his experience in an engaging, almost intimate way. The film recently won the Best Documentary award at the Hill Country Film Festival.

Wild, a former Texan living in Brooklyn, decides to embark on this adventure to honor the memory of his dad, who loved taking his family on adventurous camping and other outdoor trips ... and eventually committed suicide. He plans to cycle from New York City through California and up to Alaska, and he has to do it within a fairly limited timeframe so the weather will be okay for travelling by the time he gets to Canada. His goal is to reach Homer, Alaska and climb an as-yet-unnamed mountain that he'll hopefully be able to officially name after his father (thus the title).

From Brooklyn, Wild starts the bicycle trek with his friend Connor Lynch, who has never tried cycling of any real distance, or outdoor living, or any of this kind of thing. While it's a rough start for Lynch, having him accompany Wild is a great entryway for the audience to empathize with the situation. Eventually they hit a rhythm as they travel west and deal with all kinds of unpredictable difficulties, as well as some truly lovely moments on the road and in places like Detroit and Yellowstone Park.

Mount Lawrence follows the obvious structure of the lengthy road trip, but Wild adds more of a personal note by framing his voiceover narration as a letter to his dad. It sounds a little stiff and forced at first, but as the documentary really gets rolling and we get to know him better, his inflections sound more natural. Music from The Bones of J.R. Bones complements the odyssey very well.

For a movie shot with GoPro cameras mounted crazily on bikes and other rough-on-the-road shooting, Mount Lawrence looks especially good on a big screen, but will carry over well to home video. The opening credits sequence, designed to look like a family vacation slideshow, is a real visual highlight. At this time, the film is touring the film-fest circuit and no distribution deals or plans have been announced ... but it's hard to imagine a documentary about an adventure of such magnitude won't make it at least to online streaming outlets soon.

Texas connections: Filmmaker Chandler Wild grew up in the Houston, Texas area.

Box-Office Alternatives: The Witches of Eastwick

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Mad Max: Fury Road is one of those sequels many were hoping would become a reality, yet few actually believed would see the light of day. The continuation of what is undoubtedly Australia's most popular film franchise at last comes to the big screen in a dark yet sprawling apocalyptic action piece just ripe for summertime audiences.

Without question the biggest plus in Mad Max: Fury Road was in bringing back the series' original director, George Miller. The director made his name helming the previous movies in the franchise before creating one of the most unpredictable filmographies in Hollywood, with features ranging from Lorenzo's Oil (1992) to Happy Feet (2006). However, no choice Miller made in his post-Mad Max days remained as standout as his first Hollywood outing, The Witches of Eastwick (1987).

Based on a novel by John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick centered on three women (Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer) in a small New England town, who dream up what they believe to be the perfect man while on a drunken girls' night. Almost immediately, a mysterious stranger (Jack Nicholson) movies into town and sets his sights on enchanting the three women, who are so captivated by him that they fail to realize that he is actually the Devil.

Review: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

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I Am Big Bird posterThe documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is exactly what you'd expect it to be, if you're a Muppet fan ... and also exactly what you'd hope it would be. Tonight's Violet Crown screening is sold out, but you can watch the film via online streaming outlets such as Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.

The film is a pleasant and sometimes touching profile of Caroll Spinney, who has spent decades portraying both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street and elsewhere. It's traditionally structured, primarily by time sequence -- beginning with his childhood and early puppet and acting gigs, and heading for the present. Interviews with Spinney help form the backbone of the film -- he tells us his own history, supported by other interview from his family to Sesame Street colleagues such as Frank Oz, Joan Ganz Cooney and Norman Stiles.

Naturally I Am Big Bird includes a great deal of vintage Sesame Street and Muppet footage, starting from the days when Oscar was orange and Big Bird didn't have quite so much plumage. The footage is delightful but also occasionally poignant -- it's impossible to talk about Big Bird without mentioning the episode about Mr. Hooper's death, and it's impossible to talk about Muppet history without mentioning Jim Henson's death.

Although the structure is fairly traditional, filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker manage some excellent segues that cover a lot of ground. For example, after showing scenes from Jim Henson's memorial, Spinney and Oz discuss Steve Whitmire taking over Kermit's character, which naturally leads to addressing what will happen when Spinney retires, and introduces his Big Bird apprentice, Matt Vogel. An early sequence about the filming of Big Bird in China pays off later in the film in a way that may be predictable but is no less affecting.

Noir City Austin 2015: Sunday Dispatch

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There was a definite sadness on Sunday, the third day of Noir City Austin, as I made my way to the seat at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz that I had occupied all weekend. The film festival was coming to a close and my trip to Noir City was almost over. The crowd had shrunk, but those who remained were hungrier than ever for more Cornell Woolrich adaptations.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes

The first selection of the day featured another standout performance by Edward G. Robinson, an actor I always tend to typecast, yet am continuously surprised by his strong range and characterizations. In Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), Robinson plays John Triton, a phony psychic who one day realizes he has developed actual powers. As his ability to predict accidents and deaths grows stronger, his newfound gift becomes a curse, which starts to eat away at him.

I'm always intrigued when I encounter a noir offering which plays with the supernatural a bit. In fact, two of last year's selections -- (Repeat Performance (1947) and Three Strangers (1946) -- balanced the two worlds perfectly and have since become two of my favorite noir selections. Night Has a Thousand Eyes fits perfectly into that mold by playing with ideas of chance, fate and whether ordinary beings have any say in such areas. There are no typical villains or dangerous women per se in this movie, which delves into the supernatural. Yet films such as Night Has a Thousand Eyes contain their own kind of special darkness, which is both menacing and fascinating all at once.

HCFF Review: The Origins of Wit and Humor

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The Origins of Wit and Humor posterCharming indie film The Origins of Wit and Humor, which screened earlier this month at the Hill Country Film Festival, appears at first to be a romantic comedy, but ultimately leans heavily on the comedy, as hinted in the title. In fact, you could argue that this movie is a romantic comedy in which humor portrays the femme fatale the protagonist pursues -- the storyline chronicles the repercussions of his entanglements with this demanding love interest.

Les (Joe Hursley) is a comedy writer who's completely devastated when seemingly out of nowhere, his longtime girlfriend moves out. He can't write, he can't function, he has no idea how to approach women, despite encouragement from his best friend Pops (Steve Lemme). On a whim, Les sends off a mail-order form from the back of an old book (with the same title as the film) and receives a "potion" that will allegedly make him irresistably funny to all women. And the big problem is that unlike "X-ray specs" and the Charles Atlas program, the potion turns out to work.

The Origins of Wit and Humor has a tendency to favor broad comedy over character and plot consistency, when given the choice, with occasional misfires. For example, the scene where Les seeks out the source of the potion he has taken is just silly and feels forced. On the other hand, a sequence that pays tribute to silent movies didn't have much tie-in to the plot but it's so funny, it hardly matters.

Hursley has a talent for hilariously appropriate facial expressions that don't cross over into shameless mugging -- he reminded me a little of Hugh Laurie back in the Bernie Wooster years. He and Lemme together make just about any situation more humorous. The female characters don't get much to do in the movie apart from Grace McPhillips as Pops' wife, who is immune to Les's charms and also pretty amusing with her own reaction shots. She also gets a nice moment in a diner with Les -- she's probably the smartest character in the film.

Noir City Austin 2015: Saturday Dispatch

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When the second day of Noir City Austin came around, I was more than excited to step into the world of Cornell Woolrich again. The first night had given me a taste with Street of Chance (1942), but now it was time to dive far into the mind of one of the great innovators of the film noir genre.

Before kicking things off, Film Noir Foundation President and festival host Eddie Muller once again thanked the audience for attending and stressed that although they were there for fun, their presence signified great steps toward restoring these rare films and and keeping them alive.

"Proceeds from these festivals go straight to film rescue and restoration," he said. "It's expensive to restore these films and we thank you for helping us preserve them as films."

With that said, the Woolrich journey began.

Noir City Austin 2015: Friday Dispatch

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Noir City got well underway Friday night at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz after too long of a wait since last year's inaugural festival. The three-day fest features a dizzying collection of film noir lost treasures, almost all of which are unavailable anywhere else. Friday's selections included Woman on the Run and Street of Chance.

Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation (my interview), was on hand once again to kick off the festival, introduce each movie and praise both the Drafthouse and the attendees.

"I'm a huge supporter of the Alamo Drafthouse and what they do to keep the moviegoing experience alive," said Muller. "Movies are essential to what happens in the culture and our efforts to preserve these films are helped enormously by those of you who continue to come to the movies."

Review: Welcome To Me

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Welcome To Me

In her seven seasons as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Kristen Wiig became known for an array of bizarre recurring characters and for taking on difficult and highly memorable impressions (Bjork, Kathie Lee Gifford and Suze Orman spring immediately to mind). She's done her fair share of comedic film work, but in the last few years has really found her niche in indie dramadies. With The Skeleton Twins and Hateship Loveship under her belt, Wiig now appears in her strongest performance to date in Welcome to Me as Alice Klieg, a woman with borderline personality disorder. 

The concept works because it is too absurd to be true. Essentially, it begins with the fact that Alice has a complicated relationship with television. It has comforted, cared and educated her over the years. Despite her mental issues, she's stopped taking her prescribed medications and relies on piles of VHS tapes to calm her nerves. She leaves the television on in her apartment at all times, telling a visitor to her home that it hasn't been turned off in 11 years. Before she can go out into the world, Alice will sit down and pop in an old Oprah episode into the VCR, reciting every line of dialogue. To her, these Oprah episodes have been a better guide for living her life than the time spent with her therapist (Tim Robbins). Spontaneity is not Alice's specialty, often expressing her feelings in "prepared statements" handwritten in advance to spare her from getting too emotional in the heat of the moment.

One night, Alice turns on the California Lottery and matches the numbers to her recently purchased ticket to discover that she has won a massive $86 million dollar jackpot. Without the checks and balances of proper care for her illness, her newfound wealth enables her to invest in the lifelong dream of having her own talk show. She teams up with New Vibrant Studios, home to a struggling local home-shopping network owned by brothers Rich (James Marsden) and Gabe (Wes Bentley) and offers to pay upfront to produce her show, which quickly goes from a weekly program (entitled Welcome To Me, with increasingly more complex opening title sequences as the show goes on) to a daily one. 

Movies This Week: May 8-14, 2015

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Far From The Madding Crowd

This weekend, the Austin Film Society is bringing She's Lost Control back to town. Caitlin caught the film on opening night at SXSW 2014. She reported: "An intense and dark slice of life, the film focuses on a woman who works as a sex surrogate while she finishes a Master's degree in psychology in New York City. Often hard-hitting and true but sometimes a little frustrating, I can't fully call this a "must-see" but I know this movie will definitely stick with me..." It plays tonight and again on Sunday afternoon at the Marchesa.

On Sunday evening, AFS will be presenting the work of two master animators. Don Hertzfeldt's award-winning short World Of Tomorrow is being paired with Cheatin', the most recent feature film from Bill Plympton. Richard Linklater's schedule last week didn't allow him to be in attendance for the Sid & Nancy screening, so another screening has been added for Monday night where he'll be there to introduce the film and lead a conversation about it afterwards. Then "Jewels In The Wasteland" gets back on track for its regular Wednesday night edition, with Linklater at the Marchesa presenting Sergio Leone's epic 1984 feature, Once Upon A Time In America. He'll be screening the extended 227-minute cut of the film in 35mm.

Frank gave us a lot of great information about this weekend's Second Annual Noir City festival by interviewing Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller about the event. Ten films, many presented in 35mm, will be screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz starting tonight. This year, all of the movies selected are the adapted works of screenwriter and novelist Cornell Woolrich. It all kicks off tonight with a restored 35mm print of 1950's Woman On The Run from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Other films presented this weekend include Phantom Lady (1944), The Guilty (1948) and No Man Of Her Own (1950). 

Box-Office Alternatives: Fading Gigolo

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Sofia Vergara has made a name for herself playing ditzy and adorable characters who also happen to be both strong and passionate. Yet for me, it's always been the same character. Audiences love Vergara's animated, over-the-top approach to comedy as evidenced by her acclaimed work on TV and in the performances she's given for directors such as Garry Marshall and Robert Rodriguez. This week, the actress gets top billing alongside Reese Witherspoon in the buddy comedy Hot Pursuit (2015). Vergara and Witherspoon hope for buddy-comedy gold playing a federal witness and the officer protecting her until trial, respectively.

The film is a continuation of that brand of comedy which Vergara has so skillfully honed, yet seldom managed to escape. Her work in Chef (2014) was promising, even if the role itself was limited. However, her performance in the movie Fading Gigolo (2013) suggests the actress has more to offer than just the same lovable dizzying persona we've seen before.

Fading Gigolo is the story of a florist named Fioravante (John Turturro, who also wrote and directed), who close friend Murray (Woody Allen) recommends as a third party for a menage-a-trois between dermatologist Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone) and her best friend Selima (Vergara). After realizing he can make a living at the world's oldest profession, Fioravante's perspective begins to change when he connects with a solemn Jewish widow (Vanessa Paradis).

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.