Elizabeth Stoddard's blog

Lone Star Cinema: The Girl

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Abbie Cornish and Maritza Santiago Hernandez in The Girl

David Riker, who directed independent immigrant drama La Ciudad, helmed a film in 2012 titled The Girl. This seems at first glance a far-too-general name for a movie about immigration, life on the border, motherhood and desperation. Is the "girl" of the title Ashley (Abbie Cornish, Bright Star, Sucker Punch), a young mother struggling to make money so she can get back custody of her son? The viewer wonders as we see her flustered under the keen eye of a social worker, arguing for more shifts at the grocery store, or riding along with her trucker dad (Will Patton, Remember the Titans, TV show Falling Skies) to Mexico.

Ashley becomes convinced that she can be a coyote -- she desperately needs the money this bad idea will bring her. Among the group of people she picks up in a Nuevo Laredo plaza to convey over the border is a young girl, who is definitely the inspiration for the title.  Ashley and the child (we find out three-quarters into the film that her name is Rosa) are thrown together by circumstance, and end up helping each other.

Review: Cuban Fury

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Cuban Fury posterWhat better way to charm a lady than to display your dance moves?

Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) leads the cast in British dance-comedy Cuban Fury as Bruce, a middle-management type in a mechanical design office. His boss Drew, played quite creepily by Chris O'Dowd (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids), constantly picks on him and won't stop with the fat jokes (seriously, enough with the fat jokes). Both men are excited by the entrance to the company of American executive Julia (Rashida Jones, Parks and Recreation, Celeste and Jesse Forever).

Bruce has a secret: He and his sister were once young Latin-dance superstars in their region, until an attack by bullies led him to put up his dancing shoes. To impress Julia, whom he spies taking salsa lessons, Bruce turns to his former dance coach Ron (Ian McShane, Deadwood) for aid. Bruce also gets help and advice from his bartender sister (Olivia Colman, Hot Fuzz, Broadchurch) and new dancing pal Bejan (Keyvam Novak, Four Lions, Syriana).

The plot is fairly predictable, with a few dance-offs thrown in. The choreography by Litza Bixler (Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Shaun of the Dead) is fast-paced and fun to watch. The dance battle between Bruce and Drew looks like it took some serious preparation. 

The soundtrack is another of the better-executed facets of Cuban Fury, with Tito Puente classics and more modern Latin pop scoring the action. However, the bordering-on-sexual-harassment humor (along with the aforementioned proliferation of fat jokes) from O'Dowd's character was enough to make me grimace in my seat. 

AFS Doc Nights Preview: Blood Brother

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Still from Blood Brother

Blood Brother, which Austin Film Society will screen Tuesday evening at the Marchesa as part of the Doc Nights series, is very obviously a labor of love. Filmmaker Steve Hoover travelled to India with his best friend Rocky Braat, who was returning after a short break to his work volunteering at a rural hostel for mothers and children with HIV/AIDS. For a few months, the director documented the daily life of his friend and the kids he serves.

The documentary may sound at first like a white-guy-goes-to-a-developing-country-to-do-good story (it kind of is one, literally), particularly when Rocky says things like he went to India "seeking authenticity." But Blood Brother is a layered film, and goes far deeper than this initial premise. The film kicks off in medias res, with an older man clutching a near-lifeless child to his chest; Rocky and others are shown racing to take the girl to the hospital. In this manner, Blood Brother grabs your attention from the start. Later on, the viewer learns more about these events and the people involved. 

Review: Teenage

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still from Teenage

Filmmaker Matt Wolf's Teenage, a glossy video collage about the growth of youth culture in the early to mid-20th century, is inspired by author Jon Savage's Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, 1875-1945.  Austin Film Society hosted a screening of the film (with Wolf in attendance) last August, but Teenage returns to Austin this weekend for a theatrical run.

Opening in 1904, scenes of children at factories are shown as narrators explain how child-labor laws led to further schooling for kids. Jena Malone (Contact, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Ben Whishaw (Bright Star, Skyfall) are two of the four voices who speak from a specific point of view.

Amid the vintage photos and footage are live-action sequences -- with color adjustments and added graininess to blend in with the older stock -- used to illustrate singular stories representing significant movements. These silent scenes, scored with ambient music and narrated by the four speakers, make Teenage appear less revolutionary and more like something you might find on PBS's American Experience. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but it’s not as original a project as the movie wants to be.

SXSW Review: Cumbres

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Ivanna Michel and Aglae Lingow in Cumbres

In the later days of SXSW 2014, I caught the movie Cumbres (English translation: Heights), which made its US premiere at the fest. A quiet film from Mexican writer/director Gabriel Nuncio, Cumbres slowly lets the audience into the world of Miwi (Aglae Lingow) and Juliana (Ivanna Michel). Their parents send the sisters on the road after something horrific happens involving older sister Juliana. We are shown a scar on her arm and told of bloody clothes in the sink. Just like the audience, Miwi is kept in the dark about the true extent of her sibling's troubles. Before they depart, Miwi's father reminds her to keep her thumbs on the outside of the steering wheel as she drives. 

The sisters forge their way to Queretaro, where they've been told a family friend will help them. On the way, they pick up and drop off friend Danny, aka aspiring rapper Danisaurio (Abdul Marcos). Most of the movie is time spent between the two young women as they converse during this road trip. The relationship between the girls is so convincing that during one scene, I wondered if the actresses actually were related. 

SXSW Review: Arlo and Julie

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Alex Dobrenko and Ashley Spillers in Arlo & Julie

Arlo (Alex Dobrenko, Hell No) and Julie (Ashley Spillers, Loves Her Gun) are your typical young twentysomething Austinites. Arlo works at a software company but writes historical articles about General Grant on the side. Julie is a waitress at a restaurant that looks like Eastside Cafe. They live, love and get by in a fourplex on W. 29th. One day, Julie receives a couple of puzzle pieces in the mail.

Such is the premise for director Steve Mims' adorable mystery-comedy Arlo and Julie. Filmed around Austin -- and on a soundstage at UT's RTF department -- this movie is a quirky look at obsession. As Julie and Arlo become more and more engrossed in this puzzle of puzzles, their lives and goals are ignored. The script, which Mims also wrote, is filled with laughs and bits of Civil War trivia. 

Old jazzy numbers punctuate scenes of Julie and Arlo waiting for the postman (Chris Doubek, The Happy Poet) or chatting with their friends Trish (Mallory Culbert, Saturday Morning Mystery), Rob (Hugo Vargas-Zesati) and Dirk (Sam Eidson, Zero Charisma). The music, witty banter, and backdrop of the downtown skyline bring to mind the best aspects of Manhattan.

Review: Veronica Mars

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Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III, and Tina Majorino in Veronica Mars

A long time ago, or so it seems to fans of the show, teen detective drama Veronica Mars was cancelled. Since its somewhat abrupt end, the series has grown a larger cult following through people introduced to the show via subscribed streaming services (raises hand) or DVD sets borrowed from friends (the case for my sister). The question high on the mind of these dedicated watchers: When will we get a movie?

Thanks to a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, this weekend the film is being released. Veronica Mars will simultaneously open in select theatres at the same time that digital copies are available for purchase. The film, from Austin director/showrunner Rob Thomas, will be the first to be released in such a fashion. It is apt that this film, funded partially through new media, be the selected title to test this out.

Guided by the exuberant response from fans, Thomas included familiar faces we know and love in the cast, led by Kristen Bell in her lead role as Veronica.  It has been 10 years since she graduated from Neptune High. Veronica has moved to NYC to complete law school and hook up again with college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell), who now works in public radio with Ira Glass (of course he does!). Former love Logan (Jason Dohring) calls her back to her California hometown to help him fight a murder rap.

SXSW 2014: Enthralled by 'Last Hijack'

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Still from Last Hijack

Before I attend film festivals, I sketch out an overloaded schedule and give myself multiple options, sometimes based more on where and when a movie is playing than the subject matter of the film itself.  Monday, I had mainly chosen to see Last Hijack because it was playing at Alamo Drafthouse Village. I figured the doc would be a good counterbalance to Cesar Chavez, and I could get my third Alamo pretzel of the fest.*  A friend happened to tweet the trailer for the documentary/animation earlier that day, and it looked terrific. 

The screening wasn't jam-packed, but most seats were full as we watched the real-life drama unfold.  Filmmakers Femke Wolting and former Austinite Tommy Pallotta depict some months in the life of Mohamed, a Somalian man whose tragic life has eventually led him to piracy hijackings at sea. He hopes to marry a young woman, but her family (and his parents, as well) want him to quit his piracy. He plans one last hijack to make money for him and his new wife to live in style. 

SXSW Review: The Great Invisible

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Roosevelt Harris talking to a woman in The Great Invisible

April 20, 2014 will be the fourth anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which caused a spill of an estimated 176 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. This horrific incident seriously altered the lives of the men who worked on the rig -- and the families of the 11 who lost their lives -- as well as the communities who once survived off jobs based on healthy waters in the Gulf. In The Great Invisible, director Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths, Be Here to Love Me) explores the aftereffects of the explosion and oil spill from multiple viewpoints.

Doug Brown, the chief mechanic for Transocean on the Deepwater Horizon (owned by Transocean, but leased by BP), gave the director some video he filmed on the rig before the disastrous night. He and another victim of the explosion, along with their wives, talk about their experience that night and their current fragile existence.

Keith Jones, father of one of the men killed in the explosion, comments on America's "insatiable thirst for gasoline" and follows the BP/Halliburton/Transocean trial to New Orleans. Brown gives these interviews intimacy, while framing them against the larger issues of America's dependence on oil and our government's participation through oil leases.

SXSW 2014 Preview: Que Caramba es la Vida

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still from Que Caramba es la Vida

On the nights when mariachi groups amass on Mexico City's Plaza Garibaldi, playing for pesos and stirring the emotions of the crowds, there are a few female musicians in their midst. Prolific German filmmaker Doris Dorrie focuses on some of these women in her new documentary, Que Caramba es la Vida, premiering Tuesday at SXSW.  

Filmed in eight weeks during 2012, the movie introduces the viewer to Maria del Carmen, a thirtysomething woman who financially supports her mother and daughter through her singing with an all-male mariachi troupe; Lupita, a young wife whose husband cares for their son the evenings and weekends she plays violin in a predominantly female troupe, Las Estrellas de Jalisco; and the older women of Las Pioneras de Mexico, some of whom were among the first female mariachis 50 years ago. 

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