Elizabeth Stoddard's blog

Lone Star Cinema: Spy Kids

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Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara and director Robert Rodriguez during filming for SPY KIDS

When the recent news broke that Alexa Vega will play a recurring character on the upcoming season of country music soap Nashville, now seemed like a perfect time to revisit the original Spy Kids. I tend to picture Vega as she appeared in the Robert Rodriguez film, but she has grown much since then. She's even married... twice.

In 2001, she and co-star Daryl Sabara (whose first role was as Murphy's baby on '90s cultural touchstone, Murphy Brown) played Carmen and Juni Cortez, troubled private-school kids. Their parents Ingrid (Carla Gugino, Karen Sisco, Sucker Punch) and Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) are consultants who have not yet admitted to the children that they used to be secret agents (who met cute at the Hotel Belen, better known as the Omni Hotel downtown). 

When evil genius/children's TV show host Floop (a colorful Alan Cumming, The Good Wife, X-Men 2) and his Minion (Tony Shalhoub, post-Galaxy Quest, pre-Monk) capture the elder Cortezes, their secret comes out. Carmen complains to family friend Felix (Cheech Marin, Up in Smoke, Nash Bridges), "My parents can't be spies -- they're not cool enough!" Of course it is now up to the younger generation to save the parents, using tech made by Machete (Danny Trejo, Machete, From Dusk 'til Dawn).

Review: Mood Indigo

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Mood Indigo posterIf one can expect anything from Michel Gondry, it is that along with the whimsy and touch of the bizarre inherent in his work is an element of truth.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind uses erasure imagery to illustrate the pain of heartbreak. Be Kind Rewind has friendly video store employees creating their own versions of Hollywood hits for their neighborhood.  Gondry's latest film, love story Mood Indigo, however, is utterly drowning in whimsy and lacking any figment of truth.

Debonair and bearded Romain Duris (Populaire, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) stars as Colin, living off family money in a spacious Paris apartment. Audrey Tautou (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) plays cute Chloe, whom Colin meets at a party. The plot goes something like this: guy meets girl, guy and girl fall in love and marry, flower grows in girl's lung.

There's also a B-plot, involving a friend (Gad Elmaleh, Priceless, Midnight in Paris) Colin loans money to court a woman (Aïssa Maïga, Cache, Bamako), which is just as confusing as the rest of the film. The fever dream of a movie is full of fantastic visions, but the story is ridiculous beyond measure. Is fate written out for us by a room full of random people on vintage typewriters? And if so, who cares?

Unpredictabilities may rule Mood Indigo, but the film still follows the overly-familiar classic "movie cough" rule. It used to be that any time someone in a movie coughed, they were terminally ill -- after all, nobody has allergies in the movies. And indeed, as soon as Chloe adorably coughs post-honeymoon, things start going downhill for the couple. 

Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

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Poster for The Hundred-Foot JourneyNew release The Hundred-Foot Journey is a beautifully-shot drama produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, who likely hope it will prove a hit along the lines of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Formidable British actress Helen Mirren gets top billing as strict French restauranteur Madame Mallory. Her establishment has a Michelin star and brings in big name political figures. However, Madame Mallory's work and life isn't the main focus of this colorful film from Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), adapted by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) from a novel by Richard C. Morais. 

A family of refugees, the Kadams from Mumbai, moves into the vacated building across the street from Madam Mallory's restaurant. Papa (veteran Indian actor Om Puri, Gandhi) wants to open an Indian restaurant in this quiet French village, with the help of son and aspiring chef Hassan (Manish Dayal, 90210, Switched at Birth) and other adult children (Amit Shah and Farzana Dua Elahe). Even the two much younger siblings help out.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is really Hassan's story. The film opens to his narration, and lots of exposition. As soon as cute Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon, Yves Saint Laurent, Mood Indigo) comes on the scene -- she's sous chef for Madame's kitchen, of course -- it is a given that she's the love interest for Hassan's character. The film deserves some credit for following the success of a character of color, but his plotline drags during the second half; this causes the movie to feel longer than its actual two-hour length.

AFS Doc Nights Preview: Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

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Whitey Bulger FBI mugshot from Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger

James J. Bulger, aka "Whitey," was a huge force in Boston for decades. He figured largely into the city's non-mafia Winter Hill Gang, killed numerous people, and eventually landed on the FBI's Most Wanted list -- just under Osama bin Laden. Some say he was an FBI informant, but he disputes those claims in the film Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.

In Whitey, voices from Whitey's past and current life paint a certain picture of the man.  Along with the multiple people Joe Berlinger interviewed (including relatives of Whitey's victims), the director inserts old surveillance video and photos from investigations, as well as passages from Bulger's 2013 racketeering trial.

While this documentary may lack a cinematic feel  -- it comes off more as a longform true-crime TV special -- the movie still offers a deep look into the dealings of this criminal figure and the people who should have been working to stop him. As WBUR reporter David Boeri says in Whitey, the "real story is our government enabled killers."

AFS Essential Cinema: Stanwyck in Her Prime

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Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper and other "professors" in BALL OF FIRE

If last summer's pre-code Barbara Stanwyck quartet of films left you hungry for more, you will be glad to know that additional Stanwyck movies are on the way! August's Essential Cinema series from Austin Film Society will showcase films from the prime of Stanwyck's career.  AFS Programmer Lars Nilsen has included a couple of well-known favorites with two titles that may be less familiar. 

I asked Nilsen why he chose to show more of this amazing actress's movies, and here's his answer:

Last year we showed the early Stanwyck. She had all the fire and personality and talent but you couldn't really call her a mature screen artist yet. The period covered here is Stanwyck as an experienced performer, fully aware of her craft and able to deploy great reserves of feeling and audience sympathy. I feel like if we had only shown the pre-Code films we would be short changing Stanwyck, who is even better in this selection of films.

Lone Star Cinema: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room posterThe names Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow are not as prevalent in the media as they were in the last decade. These men, behind the success (such as it was) and severe failure of Enron, were eventually found guilty of fraud and other charges.

The 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is based on the book of the same name. Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) interviews the book's authors, journalist Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, along with journalists, political figures and former Enron employees. Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich), who could narrate practically anything and lend it a certain credence, talks of the bravado and bluff in the history of the energy-trading company based in Houston. 

These interviews and Coyote's narration speak to the shenanigans going down at the once-praised company. The "macho culture" at the business is described, corraborated by video clips from an extreme motocross trip and discussion of one executive's love for strippers (with requisite strip club footage). Audio of male traders making rude and conspiratorial remarks is played over scenes from the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis. In such a case, it's not shocking that a woman, Sherron Watkins, turned whistleblower against Enron.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts the real-life events as a sort of morality tale, with many of the interviewees speaking about the lousy ethics of the company's business and their "synergistic corruption."  The director includes C_SPAN video of Skilling before a Senate committee, lying about his part in the faulty financing Enron was using.  Because the company appeared to be doing so well -- they were making loads of money, anyway -- any outside person who tried to ask important questions about the business or look closer at their dealings faced repurcussions.

AFS Screening Preview: Lars Nilsen on 'The Sepia Screen'

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poster for Dirty Gertie from Harlem USASouthern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas owns an archive of 1930s and 1940s-era films -- shorts, newsreels and features -- made specifically for black audiences of the time.  These historic reels were found in a Tyler, Texas warehouse in 1983, and the team at SMU's G. William Jones Video and Collection has restored and digitized the movies.

You can view the films online, or if you're in Austin, watch a selection that Lars Nilsen, Austin Film Society Programmer, has compiled from the collection. "The Sepia Screen" program will play at the Marchesa on Sunday, July 27 at 2 pm [tickets info].

The 35mm films screening this Sunday include the short Vanities (1946), Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946) starring Francine Everett, and Souls of Sin (1949).

I talked (via email) to Nilsen about this upcoming program.

Slackerwood: How did you learn about this specific archive at SMU?

Lars Nilsen: I'm a big fan of these films and I was researching them when I ran across the archive and naturally the wheels turned in my head. I contacted them last year and they told me the films were on tour in South America, but I made plans to eventually bring them here to Austin.

What are your thoughts on the cultural relevance of these forgotten works?

Nilsen: First off, they are not "art films" by and large. They are very low-budget commercial films and plot-wise, they are very similar to their mainstream B-movie counterparts. The interest and value of these films comes from the fact that they are made for black audiences. While the humor is typically quite broad, it's instantly more sophisticated because it need not be slanted to fit a white audience's preconceptions. It can be very "inside" subversive humor.

Review: Sex Tape

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Sex Tape poster Sex Tape, a goofy new movie from director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher), teams Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel up again. This time, they're married parents longing for the actively passionate days of their nascent romance. The film opens with narration from mommy-blogger Annie (Diaz), who laments the loss of time and energy for sex with her husband Jay (Segel).

Hoping to shake things up, Annie suggests they make a sex tape for themselves using Jay's new iPad. And thus the trouble begins.  Jay uses an app called Frankensync that  syncs media on any iPad/laptop he's owned (if you're wondering, GQ checked with AppleCare and nope, it's not possible). The whole plot hinging on this fictional tech is laugh-out-loud preposterous, so Segel and Diaz deserve some credit for making it seem even slightly plausible.

The couple tries to delete the video from any iPads they've passed on to others. Their ridiculous romp leads them to the home of their best friends (Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper) and to the mansion of the prospective buyer of Annie's blog (Rob Lowe, whose character is like Chris Traeger from Parks and Recreation, if he did coke and loved Eazy-E).

Diaz and Segel are game for whatever the script throws them, be it equal-opportunity nudity, physical comedy or acting frazzled on cocaine. There are a few sappy minutes involving a Jack Black cameo, but until that point, Sex Tape is continuously hilarious. 

AFS Doc Nights Preview: Sweet Dreams

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Drummers of Ingoma Nshya in Sweet Dreams

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

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

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

Review: Obvious Child

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Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

One of the films I regret missing at SXSW is Obvious Child, which opens in Austin on Friday. Jenny Slate (Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation) stars as Donna, a raunchy stand-up comedian. A one-night stand with cute yuppie Max (Jake Lacy, The Office) leads to Donna's accidental pregnancy, and she schedules an appointment to have an abortion. Unlike many other movies or TV shows (Juno, Sex and the City) where a character wants an abortion and then changes her mind, Donna is resolute in her decision.

What she is uncertain about is pretty much everything else. Her boyfriend just broke up with her in a gross bar restroom (props to the set designers for creating a truly dingy-looking bathroom). The bookstore where she works is closing, and her career in stand-up is far from explosive. Her mother (Polly Draper, thirtysomething) encourages her to make real plans for the future. Max seems too straight-laced to be her type, but Donna really likes him. She's just not sure what his response to her news will be.

Director Gillian Robespierre based her first feature on her 2009 short of the same name, which also starred Slate.  There's a raw feeling to the humor and to Slate's portrayal of Debbie. Her post-breakup, wasted stand-up set is terrifically awkward for all involved. A small complaint would be that this set seems to last longer than it should, but it truly showcases Debbie's feeling of humiliation.

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