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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. 

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