Debbie Cerda's blog

Review: Mao's Last Dancer

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Mao's Last Dancer

While living in Houston over 20 years ago, I became acquainted with some of the principal and soloist male dancers from the Houston Ballet Dance Company. To me their lives were glamorous and dramatic. Their passion on stage with their pas de deux partners often extended beyond the stage to fiery romances. I also remember one young Chinese dancer who was friendly enough but more restrained than his boisterous British and American counterparts. I had no idea at the time what led to his employment with the Houston Ballet, but the less-than-glamorous circumstances were captured in Li Cunxin's 2003 autobiography adapted by Jan Sardi (Shine, The Notebook) for the screen in the biopic Mao's Last Dancer. Directed by Academy Award nominee Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies), this film captures the politics and drama involved in Cunxin's remarkable journey from rags to international stardom.

Mao's Last Dancer spans several decades through a series of flashbacks. At the height of China's Cultural Revolution in 1972, Jiang Qing -- also known as "Madame Mao" -- revived the Beijing Dance Academy. Mao's cultural advisors traveled through the country to select those children who not only had the physical attributes of a dancer but also devotion to serving in Chairman Mao's revolution. Li Cunxin was the sixth of seven sons born to peasants in the poverty-stricken Qingdao province, and his family welcomed the opportunity for Li to pursue a better life. At the age of 11, he left home to begin seven years of harsh training regimen at the Academy.

Review: Nanny McPhee Returns

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Nanny McPhee Returns Still Photo from Universal Pictures by Liam Daniel

I didn't watch Nanny McPhee when the movie was released in 2005. Frankly, I found the image of the lovely Emma Thompson done up with hairy moles and snaggletooth quite frightening. However, after seeing Nanny McPhee Returns this week, I learned my own lesson from Nanny "little C, big P" McPhee -- don't judge a book by its cover.  Award-winning actress and writer Thompson reprises her role as screenwriter and star, but this time she's also the executive producer, which might explain some of the big names in Nanny McPhee Returns. However, it's not just the stars in the cast that make this film enjoyable. Thompson's screenwriting skills provide the youngest members of the cast with well-developed characters.

Based on characters created by Christianna Brand in the Nurse Matilda series, the central plot of Nanny McPhee Returns focuses on the same formula. An unintentional single parent is pestered by misbehaving children, and Nanny McPhee arrives to teach the children five lessons. Maggie Gyllenhaal portrays Isabel Green, a mother overwhelmed by her three children as well as their two spoiled cousins who come to stay with them to avoid bombs falling in London (it's set during WWII). Mr. Green (Ewan McGregor in a cameo appearance) has been away fighting in the war, and the family is in danger of losing the farm. Mrs. Green works in the local shop where she has to clean up after the forgetful elderly Mrs. Docherty (Maggie Smith).

Review: The Expendables

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The Expendables

I was really excited to see The Expendables at the second annual Cinemapocalypse, especially since Die Hard was scheduled to screen beforehand. Seeing Die Hard when it opened was a memorable experience for me. I recall the realization that I had spent most of the movie literally on the edge of my seat, and only releasing my grip on the armrests when the credits rolled. Die Hard was a defining moment for action flicks, a rollercoaster ride alongside a reluctant hero who viewers could emotionally invest in -- ironically Sylvester Stallone turned down the role of John McClane

Unfortunately, Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables falls far below the standard set by Die Hard as well as several other films featuring the stellar cast. Plain and simple, The Expendables is pure unadulterated action porn. The loose plot and dialogue exist solely to tie explosive money shots together, with body parts flying every which way. Subplots aren't fleshed out, leaving viewers befuddled.

The opening scene of The Expendables introduces us to a group of aging mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), as they take over a Somalian pirate ship to rescue hostages. With impressive firepower, knife-throwing and hand-to-hand combat, they quickly take out the pirates. However, things get nasty as unstable drug-addicted Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) attempts to hang one of the pirates despite orders. His partner Ying Yang (Jet Li) stops him, and Jensen nearly kills Yang, resulting in Jensen being released from services. Filling out the roster is heavy weapons specialist Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and demolitions expert Toll Road (Randy Couture).

Finding Worthy Causes at Lights. Camera. Help.

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Samuel and Isaiah Habib blowing a bubble

I don't envy the judges of this year's second annual Lights. Camera. Help. Film Festival, which ran from last Thursday through Saturday. After viewing so many great non-profit and cause-driven films and PSAs representing worthy causes, I would have had a difficult time picking the best. Three winners for feature-length, short-form, and PSA films were selected from the pool of 33 finalists. The winners will receive the proceeds from this year's festival, which includes any donations made on the website during the festival season.

The feature winner, Including Samuel, portrays a family’s hopes and struggles as they engage their child Samuel (seen above with his brother Isaiah), who suffers from cerebral palsy. Although Samuel is the main subject, his father, filmmaker Dan Habib, delivers a well-balanced film by also documenting the experiences of four other individuals with disabilities. Alana Malfy, a high-school student, is part of Beyond Access, a University of New Hampshire pilot project working with public schools to fully include students who experience the most significant disabilities. Malfy benefits from the program but she also faces social challenges that daily test the patience and understanding of classmates and teachers.

Review: Charlie St. Cloud

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Charlie St. Cloud

I'll confess that I'm a sucker for sentimental supernatural film and television. Despite its cheesiness, I'll watch Ghost and Ghost Whisperer anytime I come across them while surfing the television channels. I loved the plot twists of What Dreams May Come, The Others and The Sixth Sense, but give me a hanky for the tearful moments. It's the more profound question of the afterlife and redemption that I find mystifying and often comforting in my morose moments of recognition of mortality. Charlie St. Cloud attempts to extract similar sentimentality from its viewers. Based on Ben Sherwood's 2004 novel The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, this film directed by Burr Steers (17 Again) paints an ethereal portrait of loved ones amongst golden sunsets and raging storms.

Charlie (Zac Efron), is clearly a young man from the wrong side of the tracks. His mother (Kim Basinger) works double shifts to support him and his annoying and devoted brother Sam. Fortunately for Charlie, his good grades and sailing prowess have secured him a sailing scholarship at Stanford. On graduation day, the future couldn't be brighter for Charlie. He promises Sam that he'll play catch with him every day at sunset until Charlie leaves for school in the fall. However, a bad decision leaves both brothers dead in a car accident -- until Charlie is brought back to life by a dedicated paramedic (Ray Liotta).

Previewing the Lights. Camera. Help. Film Festival

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Lights. Camera. Help. FestivalThe Lights. Camera. Help. Film Festival, which starts Thursday night, returns for its second year to spotlight films for a cause, and this year promises to be even more successful than last year's event. The number of cause-driven short film, videos, and PSAs jumped from last year's 140 to 235 entries in 2010. This festival has also expanded to a third day with new venues, including the Mexican American Culture Center, The Millenium Youth Center and Space 12.

LCH Film Festival attendees have the opportunity to see as many as 33 films and PSAs, and can also meet the filmmakers and representatives from the nonprofits involved. All proceeds from the festival go to the nonprofit associated with the winning film. Some of the diverse causes and topics spotlighted in thie year's films include public transportation, education, diseases, disaster relief in Peru and hunger in Texas.

One interesting theme I've noticed at the LCH Film Festival this year is bikes. Adventures For the Cure is about raising awareness and funds for diabetes as well as helping disabled children in Kenya through a 6,500-mile bicycle trek across the U.S. made by three young men, one of whom has Type I diabetes. Sweet Ride is a PSA focusing on the efforts of Transform to encourage San Francisco Bay Area residents to consider cycling as an alternate transportation option. Together We Can Make It focuses on the efforts of Bicycles for Humanity - Colorado to provide bicycles as distribution vehicles for improved healthcare to people too remote from formalized healthcare facilities in Namibia, Africa.  

Several Austin nonprofit organizations will be represented at LCH Film Festival this year:

Review: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

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Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

Another chapter in the life of history's most influential woman in fashion continues with the screen adaptation of Chris Greenhalgh's 2002 novel Coco & Igor as Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (French title: Chanel Coco & Igor Stravinsky). This dramatization of Chanel's alleged affair with a man as influential and diverse as herself picks up not long after where last year's critically acclaimed by Anne Fontaine, Coco Before Chanel, ends. Although the two films have much in common, there's less appeal and passion to this adaptation.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky begins with a scandal, but not quite the one immediately expected -- the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s modernist ballet, "Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring)." Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) is nervously awaiting for the curtain to rise as Ballet Russes impresario/founder Sergei Diaghilev (Grigori Manoukov) and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (Marek Kossakowski) are frantically directing the dancers and orchestra. Within the first act, the classical music audience becomes enraged at the violent motif and dissonance of Stravinsky's work, so much that a riot breaks out and police must be called to calm the masses. Throughout the chaos, Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) quietly and intently observes the ballet and the crowd's reactions. She departs without meeting Stravinsky, but it's evident she's drawn to him.

Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival Expands for 2010

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Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival logo

The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities has expanded this year's1 Cinema Touching Disability (CTD) Film Festival, which takes place in Austin in October. For the festival's seventh year, it's adding a Thursday evening screening at the Goodwill Community Center, as well as art exhibits from Imagine Art and VSA arts of Texas. These local nonprofit organizations support people with disabilities with learning, participating in, and enjoying the arts. As always, the short film competition for grades 6-12 and college categories will take place, with finalists' entries screening at the festival. Competition registration is open until August 31.

The CTD Film Festival takes place from Thursday night, October 14, through Saturday, October 16. I'm excited to see the SXSW award-winning documentary Marwencol as the opening-night film on Thursday, although I would prefer to see it for the first time on a real theater screen at the festival's main venue, Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. It will be interesting to see how the Goodwill Community Center works as a film venue. The documentary's subject, Mark Hogencamp, definitely fits in with the Goodwill's program of rehabilitation. Hogencamp suffered traumatic brain injuries after an attack outside a bar. His self-created unorthodox therapy is quite fascinating -- in his backyard, Hongencamp has created Marwencol, a 1/6th scale World War II-era town populated with dolls representing friends, family and even his attackers. Through his photographic images, Hogencamp documents the town’s miniature battles and dramas. Check out Jette's review to find out what she thought about this film.

Quick Snaps: Ashley Greene of 'Twilight' in Austin

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Ashley Greene at Skateland

While checking out photos from the red carpet events across the globe for The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, I was struck by how photogenic co-star Ashley Greene is. Her natural grace and beauty stands out on the red carpet -- but perhaps I'm biased since I was able to get some great shots of Greene and the rest of the cast during the Skateland premiere at SXSW this year, like the one above.

It has to be no easy feat with the pandemonium that follows The Twilight Saga stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, as I experienced at The Runaways premiere. Stewart seemed quite withdrawn at the SXSW event both on the red carpet and onstage for the Q&A. I dismissed it as the effect of a rigorous press junket, but according to this NY Daily News article, Stewart is quite uncomfortable and fearful during large events. That would definitely explain why she spent most of the Q&A crouched down on the stage.

Austin Film Festival Announces More 2010 Speakers and Awards

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AFF 2009: Up in the Air

Last week, Austin Film Festival (AFF) announced confirmed panelists from the film and television industries, including David Simon, this year’s recipient of the 2010 Outstanding Television Writer award. Simon is the creator of HBO’s The Wire, where he served as executive producer, head writer and showrunner for the duration of the series. Simon brought in local musical favorite and former Texan Steve Earle to play a struggling street musician in his new HBO series Treme. Earle's song "The City" was used in the season finale. I've not seen either series personally, but I'm intrigued enough to watch Treme after reading reviews by residents of New Orleans. General consensus is that Simon has painted a lifelike portrait of what New Orleans life was like post-Katrina -- and a plus is one of my favorite actors, John Goodman, stars.

The AFF Screenwriters Conference offers over 65 panels, craft sessions and roundtable discussions led by more than 100 industry professionals. As I mentioned in my wrap-up of AFF 2009, I enjoy attending panels and gaining insight into the creative processes of film and television writing and production. I think AFF has the most to offer for anyone wanting screenwriting content at a local conference.

The confirmed screenwriter and filmmaker speakers for the 2010 Austin Film Festival will include several writers who've worked on some films connected to Central Texas. John Lee Hancock wrote and directed A Perfect World and The Rookie, which were both filmed in and around Austin. Peter Hedges wrote the screenplay based on the original novel for What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Machete co-writer Alvaro Rodriguez will also speak at this year's conference -- whether co-writer and cousin Robert Rodriguez will make a surprise appearance is anyone's guess at this time. He unexpectedly popped into an AFF screening of Spy Kids yesterday. However, I'm sure Machete  will generate a lively discussion due to recent controversy as reported in a recent Slackery News Tidbits.

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