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Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay pt 1The movie The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 continues the series, taking it into darker, more adult territory. Fans of the books will not be disappointed. The third film sticks quite close to the events of the Suzanne Collins novel's first half, though the movie is slightly less bloody. Directed by Catching Fire's Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine), Mockingjay is both faithful to the source and also timely commentary on the use of media to influence a revolution.

Peter Craig and Danny Strong penned the screenplay, which picks up immediately after the events in Catching Fire. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been evacuated to the lost District 13, hidden in a vast complex of underground bunkers. As the clampdown by the government of evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) on the rebelling districts continues, her best option to contribute to the revolution is to assume the role for which she has unwittingly been groomed and become the Mockingjay, an inspiration and example to the repressed peoples of Panem broadcast in propaganda videos over hijacked airwaves to all the districts. At the same time, her love and fellow Hunger Games champion Peeta is trapped in the Capital, used as an opposing figure begging for an end to violence in official broadcasts.

Until now, the series has always been told first-person from Katniss' perspective. For the first time here, we see just a few scenes with other characters: President Snow and his staff, District 13 President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Game Master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that set up the film as more of a direct conflict between Katniss and Snow. "Moves and counter-moves," muses Snow at one point, to emphasize that this is a chess match between the two, himself in white and Katniss in black. Caught up in the conflict between them, the districts are all in gray, and the grayest among them is 13.

Review: The Theory of Everything

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The Theory of Everything

There is surprisingly little science in The Theory of Everything, a film about famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking's personal life. There is, however, a lot of kissing.

Well, maybe not that much kissing -- at least compared to other romantic films -- but the movie contains far more romance than science. Want to learn about Hawking's groundbreaking work? Skip the deceptively titled The Theory of Everything, which focuses on Hawking's relationship with his first wife, Jane Hawking, and barely touches on his brilliant scientific ideas.

Based on Jane Hawking's memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, The Theory of Everything opens as grad students Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) begin dating at the University of Cambridge in 1963. All is well with their courtship at first. But within a few months, Stephen is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), a progressive disorder that causes motor neuron degeneration and muscle weakness and atrophy.

HRC Brings Molly Haskell to Austin Tomorrow to Talk 'GWTW'

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Gone with the Wind concept painting

Have you been to the "The Making of Gone with the Wind" exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center yet? Whatever your opinion of the film, it is truly amazing. I've been once and I feel like I caught about 60 percent of it before my feet gave out -- I need to go back again. The exhibit runs through Jan. 4, and admission is free (although parking near UT probably won't be), so take a long lunch break and check it out. Your mom's visiting for Christmas vacation? Bring her there for a treat.

Tomorrow night (Wednesday, Nov. 19) at 7 pm, head over to HRC to hear author and film critic Molly Haskell discuss her book Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited. It focuses on both the novel and the movie. Haskell is probably best known for her book on women in film, From Reverence to Rape. I've heard her speak before and can't recommend it enough. If you can't make it to the HRC, a live webcast will be available.

I've read Frankly, My Dear and enjoyed it very much -- in fact, I bought the book at HRC after visiting the exhibit. I've read maybe a half-dozen books over the years about Gone with the Wind, because back in high school I was a huge raving fan of the novel. I'm less so now -- over the years the racism has bugged me more and more, and I've always felt Scarlett is essentially an overgrown teenager. But somewhere around here I believe I even have a book of producer David O. Selznick's infamous memos (he would have loooved social media and email), many of which concerned his great 1939 epic film. So I went into the exhibit, and Haskell's book, with plenty of background information.

Movies This Week: November 14-20, 2014

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Rosewater 

It's a very busy weekend for cinema lovers in Austin. First up, you've got the Austin Asian American Film Festival at the Marchesa. It's a welcome return for the festival, which was last held in 2009. The fest aims to turn the spotlight on films from Japan, South Korea, Myanmar Thailand, Taiwan, India, the Philippines, Vietnam and the United States. It kicked off last night and will run through Sunday. Tonight, you can catch a Taiwanese drama called Ice Poison and Pee Mak, a horror film that is the highest grossing film in the history of Thailand. Saturday's lineup includes a Vietnamese comedy called Funny Money and the festival's centerpiece, Andrew Lay and Andrew Loo's Revenge Of The Green Dragons, a film that features Martin Scorsese as an executive producer. Sunday will include the Indian documentary Tomorrow We Disappear and the Japanese comedy Cicada. The full lineup and ticket information can be found at the festival's website linked above.   

The Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar will be welcoming the second annual Forever Fest this weekend. Tonight they've got a quote-along screening of Mean Girls with stars Jonathan Bennett, Daniel Franzese and Daniel DeSanto in person for a Q&A. Your ticket for the movie also gets you into The Spring Fling dance at the Highball where they encourage you to come dressed as your favorite Mean Girls character! Saturday's featured film is a local premiere for Amira & Sam, an indie drama Drafthouse Films will be releasing next year. Forever Fest will be hosting a live Q&A with the film's stars Martin Starr, Paul Wesley, Dina Shihabi and director Sean Mullin. 

The Austin Film Society has limited programming this week since the Marchesa theater is being utilized by the Austin Asian American Film Festival, but they've still got a few great events on the calendar. They'll be hosting the Austin premiere of Stop The Pounding Heart on Wednesday night. Shot in rural Texas, this 2013 selection of the Cannes Film Festival introduces us to a "teenage girl coming of age on her religious family's goat farm." Also screening this week is 2013's On The Job on Thursday night. It's the Essential Cinema pick from a new series on contemporary Filipino cinema. 

Review: Rosewater

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RosewaterWhen you browse to the CNN website, you can choose between US and international editions of the site. While both feature current news items, one edition is focused more heavily on stories about celebrity gossip, xenophobic fears and sports. The other focuses on stories about foreign politics, military activities and human-rights figures. I probably don't have to tell you which is which. The fact is, a majority of Americams don't care about what is happening in other countries. If they did, those stories would be the ones featured in the US edition of CNN, and you would already know the story of Maziar Bahari, the Iranian Canadian journalist imprisoned by the Iranian government for 118 days in 2009 accused of being a spy.

If you have the slightest interest about happenings outside the US, especially in the Middle East -- an area typically ignored and/or misrepresented by most public education here -- you should consider Rosewater essential viewing. Jon Stewart, comedian, actor and host of the perennially popular The Daily Show, has brought Bahari's tale to the big screen after numerous appearances on his program, one of which figured heavily in his incarceration; the Islamic Republic used as evidence against him an appearance in which Jason Jones appeared dressed as a "spy" for comedic effect.

The import of this movie lies in its ability to help bridge the gaps in understanding that result from the holes in our knowledge and direct experience with Iranian culture. Stewart is new to filmmaking, and at times the feature looks more like a TV program than a film. Much of this is owing to the use of footage from various sources, news clips, even footage shot by friends of Bahari in Iran itself. Stewart edits it into a cohesive experience, but the mood shifts irregularly -- it shifts from documentary to drama and even to comedy. Throughout, however, runs a clear message: Governments control their citizens through information, and with the free flow of communication people can overcome an oppressive regime.

Rosewater's first act puts into perspective some things we take for granted. We have unlimited access to information, news, and culture unfettered by government interference, if we only seek it out. Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari encounters an educated group of youths operating a "satellite university" where through illegal hidden satellite dishes, they access the world outside Iran's state-controlled media. As Bahari documents the 2009 election, voters swarm the polls, knowing little about the opposition candidate they support ... other than they'll vote for anyone who isn't Ahmadinejad. Before the polls are even closed, state-run media announce an overwhelming majority of the vote for Ahmadinejad in the rigged election. Bahari's mother Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo) represents the typical voter, unhappy with the Islamic regime but confused by the rampant propaganda on her TV. Meanwhile, rioting breaks out in the streets, and Bahari captures the violence on camera as guards begin firing on civilians, a video that results in his arrest.

Ready, Set, Fund: Creepy and Cool November

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found footage 3D crew

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

It's a busy month for local films in the making, and you have plenty of chances to help your favorite (or future favorite) Texas filmmakers bring their stories to the screen. 

Into fun, artsy horror movies? Slow Creep by Jim Hickcox is about a "rad-as-hell 15-year-old girl" who, in an act of revenge, goes after a monster made of garbage. This project recently received an AFS Kodak Grant but still needs to raise a few thousand dollars so that the filmmaker can properly create the 90s aesthetic and scary details his monster movie requires.

Find out more in this trailer:

AFF Review: 61 Bullets

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61 Bullets

I grew up in the greater New Orleans area, I have minors in political science and history from LSU ... I even worked in the Louisiana State Capitol for awhile. But it wasn't until I saw 61 Bullets at Austin Film Festival that I heard a viable alternative theory about Huey Long's death. (Sure, I heard speculation, but I gave it as much credence as alternate Kennedy assassination theories.) 61 Bullets not only presents the case for this theory compellingly, but it brings in the personal -- the family of Dr. Carl Weiss, accused of assassinating then-Senator Long.

For those of you who haven't had to learn this for a pop quiz, who haven't poked their fingers in the bulletholes in the State Capitol wall, here's the background: In 1935, former La. Gov. Huey Long was shot in the State Capitol. The story we learned is that Weiss leaped out from behind a pillar and started shooting. Long's bodyguards peppered Weiss's body with 61 bullets (thus the documentary's title), and rushed Long to the hospital, but he died several days later. The rationale generally provided for why Weiss did it is that he was mentally unhinged, and perhaps had a beef with Long over Weiss's father-in-law possibly losing a judgeship.

However, many of Weiss's relatives have never quite accepted this theory, it seems. They believe the political ambitions of the Long family (which indeed are legendary) are a big reason behind the concealment of the facts. For example, a federal investigation of the incident never took place -- everything was handled locally, information is missing, etc. Long's body is buried under so much concrete in the Capitol that an autopsy would be impossible, and his surviving descendants/relatives still believe Weiss assassinated him.

The Stars at Night: Three on a Match

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Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak in Three on a Match

Fearless editor Jette has indulged my love for classic film by allowing me to look into older movies which have Texas connections -- mostly through the people involved in making them. We'll call this new column The Stars at Night (thanks to my sister for the title idea). For my first selection, I chose a Joan Blondell film. Blondell's family lived in Texas during her teenage years -- she was even crowned Miss Dallas once upon a time.

The beautiful blonde with big eyes and a wry delivery tended to be placed in supporting roles during the half-century of her career. I hoped that with her top credit in 1932's Three on a Match, Blondell would have a larger role here... but no such luck. The melodrama includes such notables as Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, along with Blondell, in the cast. However, it is early enough in their careers that they are all stuck in side roles.

Blondell plays actress Mary, introduced as "not a bad girl ... just not serious enough." Davis is secretary Ruth, and Ann Dvorak overacts as wealthy wife Vivian. Three on a Match speedily runs us through their days together in primary school up through the current year. Montages of obscure news events and headlines are shown between segments to set the year. Giving the screenwriters some credit: Film was still in its early days in 1932, so it's not as if they knew a better way to show the passage of time. Or maybe they just loved the idea of montages. Director Mervyn LeRoy shot five other movies that year (including the much better-known I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang), so it's doubtful he had much extra attention to give Three on a Match.

AFF Review: Wild

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Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Cheryl Strayed, author and former Dear Sugar advice-giver, wrote a bestseller based on journal entries she kept as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail as a young adult in the '90s. Her Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is deeply felt, harsh in its openness about her past drug use and infidelities, and a loving ode to her mother. When I heard Reese Witherspoon would play Strayed in the cinematic adaptation, I was hesitant to get too excited. Then I saw the trailer and started counting the days til the movie's release. The screening at Austin Film Festival was packed, so I wasn't alone in my eagerness to see Wild.

Author/screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) adapted Strayed's original work; in the hands of director Jean-Marc Valee (Dallas Buyers Club, The Young Victoria), the author's story is told in a type of stream of consciousness. After a cold open with Witherspoon as Cheryl frustratedly throwing a boot off a mountain, we are shown a truck (driven by the real Strayed) dropping our main character off at a less-than-reputable hotel. Before she starts the journey and throughout her long hike -- which seems as much a penance as a form of self-discovery -- quick edits take the viewer through flashes of her memory.  In this non-linear manner, scenes from her childhood, college experience, and young, troubled marriage are interspersed in the timeline of her months-long trek.

Review: Force Majeure

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Force MajeureWhen faced with starvation, some animals eat their young. When facing death, the wisdom goes, nature rewards parents who protect themselves at the expense of their children as, after all, they can always have more children if they survive. There is also a theory that in times of great stress and danger, instinct can take over our actions and override the conscious brain. This week's release at the Arbor, Force Majeure, explores both of these.

Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, the Swedish submission for Best Foreign Language Film in the next Academy Awards won a jury prize at Cannes and audience praise at Fantastic Fest. Peppered with humor at times so subtle I felt it got lost within the drama, Force Majeure reminded me in some way of Escape From Tomorrow. Both films find dark humor with a family of four on holiday when things begin to go nightmarishly wrong.

In this case, that scenario takes the form of a controlled avalanche that proves a little more energetic than expected, threatening the lives of Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their children Vera and Harry (siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren) as they lunch during their ski trip in the French Alps.

Instead of protecting his family or helping get his children out of the situation, Tomas flees the actually harmless snowdrift. Ebba, shocked by the revelation her husband has failed in a moment of weakness to live up to his role as protector, begins to question their marriage. The children are helpless in the face of the very real possibility that their parents may break up the family as their mother obsesses over an action their father patently denies.

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