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2014 in Review: The Year's Biggest Duds

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Edge of Tomorrow2014 had a lot of great movie releases, as you'll see in our Slackerwood Top Ten later this week. Picking out favorites was easy. Limiting them to just ten choices was much tougher.

However, there's no question the following titles were big losers for the year, and I'll tell you why these are my picks.

10. Edge of Tomorrow

This Tom Cruise-starring adaptation of the Japanese manga All You Need is Kill was one of the critically best films of the year and thus its place at number 10. Unfortunately, due to uncertainty over marketing, the opening weekend box office take was just under $30 million for this $178 million blockbuster. As of September, it had barely grossed $100 million. It failed again with the home video release which had "Live Die Repeat" splashed across the cover causing confusion among people who had seen the marketing for the edgier title. (my review)

9. Interstellar

Do you science? You'd be a lot cooler if you did. This movie is a controversial pick with many people on the "loved it" side of the debate. Still, Interstellar was saddled with very high expectations that many felt it failed to meet. Notes circulated on some of the original script ideas that had many wanting something more than they got. Much as I enjoyed it, the final act abandoned hard science in favor of fantasy, and the sound problems reported from across the country were a distraction. (Marcie's review)

8. Godzilla

Another one of my dud entries that was actually a pretty good film. This year, and with this remake, "pretty good" wasn't good enough. Gareth Edwards' heart was in it, but he took too long to build up the action to the point where the audience really felt he should have started. The most common complaint was that the title character doesn't show up for the first 40 minutes of the two-hour movie. My biggest complaint was under-use of Bryan Cranston (and over-use of Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This only has a 6.6 rating on IMDb. (my review)

Lost in the Awards Rush: Two Lovers

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"Lost in the Awards Rush" is a weekly series Slackerwood is running during the awards season, to suggest lesser-known but excellent alternatives to popular frontrunners for big movie awards.

Many authors and their works have been deemed as unfilmable by Hollywood because of unorthodox plots and characters that defy conventionality to great extremes. Nowhere is this more evident than with the works of Thomas Pynchon. The revered author may be the godfather of the postmodern detective, yet due to a number of dizzying elements within his books, none of Pynchon's works ever received the big-screen treatment. Enter Paul Thomas Anderson, who after securing Pynchon's blessing, brought Inherent Vice, one of the author's most acclaimed novels, to the screen. The 60s-set tale of a hippie private eye (Joaquin Phoenix) who takes on a bizarre missing persons case was heralded as one of the year's best comedies and earned Anderson a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination.

While it's certainly a marvel how a seemingly unfilmable novel made such a dynamic transition to the screen, its a true shame that Phoenix's work as Doc, the oftentimes stoned detective, has been all but forgotten this awards season. The three-time Oscar nominee can already claim a laundry list of performances that reach levels of characterization other actors can only dream of. Though its a definite 180 from his work in Inherent Vice, Phoenix's work in the small independent drama Two Lovers (2008) is probably his most complex and poetic turn to date.

Ready, Set, Fund: Show These Local Film Projects Some Love

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peace officer still

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

Valentine's Day has come and gone, but it's never a bad time to shower up-and-coming filmmakers with a little attention. The film projects included in this month's roundup deal with family strife, community safety, horror and world travel. If you're feeling generous, feel free to donate to whichever ones appeal to your movie-loving heart.

Leading off is a film that sounds pretty timely in terms of content and will be premiering at this year's SXSW in the Documentary Feature Competition. Peace Officer (pictured above) examines officer-involved shootings in one community and questions when (or maybe whether) law enforcement officers have the right to use deadly force. Directed by Scott Christopherson (an Assistant Professor of Documentary Film at St. Edward's University) and Brad Barber, Peace Officer is collecting funds to help with distribution and various other expenses through Kickstarter until March 7.

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

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Fifty Shades of Grey

Ouch!
-- Anastasia Steele, far too infrequently in Fifty Shades of Grey

Oh, Hollywood, why do you tease me so, only to leave me sorely disappointed?

I'm referring, of course, to your tepid cinematic treatment of my most favorite kinky novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. I longed for ecstatic screams of agony and agonized screams of ecstasy, but the film delivered little more than one-percenter fu and some really lame spanking scenes.

I know that many a fine novel has suffered greatly in its journey to the big screen; such is the nature of turning books into movies. But your treatment of the brilliant Fifty Shades of Grey is downright disrespectful and, dare I say, deserving of a sound thrashing.

Before I get to the thrashing, I'll give those unfamiliar with Fifty Shades a Grey a two-sentence plot summary: College student Anastasia "Ana" Steele (Dakota Johnson) meets kinky billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who wants nothing more in life than to tie her up and beat her. Initially shocked, she finally submits to him -- and to the wanton desires of the naughty girl she truly is. That's really all there is to the story; great literature need not be complicated.

Movies This Week: February 13-19, 2015

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Quite a few special events are happening this weekend for Valentine's Day that don't include the supposedly kinky sex of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Tonight at the Marchesa, the Austin Film Society is having a special premiere screening of 5 to 7. The movie stars Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) and Berenice Marlohe (Skyfall). If you'd rather go for classic romances on Saturday, Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane is having a Gone With The Wind feast and Ritz is having a Casablanca feast. If you're a single women or gay man, you may prefer a Valentine's Day screening of Magic Mike at Alamo Lakeline. For that movie, the Alamo's typical "Don't Talk" rules are suspended and specialty cocktails are on the menu for a real free-for-all.

If you're completely twisted, then Alamo South Lamar has you covered too. They're teaming up with Chiller and Mondo for a Cannibal Holocaust screening on Saturday late night. Celebrating Mondo's vinyl release of the soundtrack, they'll be showing this notoriously disgusting film will play along with a meal that includes turtle soup and monkey brains. All right then. 

On Sunday, Alamo Ritz has programmed a double feature of "Avant Erotica" that pairs with Fifty Shades Of Grey. Described on the website as a "double-shot hangover remedy of sexual disorientation," it begins with a 16mm print of Peggy Ahwesh's The Deadman and also features legendary exploitation director Doris Wishman's Let Me Die A Woman in a 35mm print. Monday night, the Ritz begins a series featuring the Films of Aleksei German with his 1985 feature film My Friend Ivan Lapshin, screening in 35mm. Cinema Cocktails digs back to 1942 for Rene Clair's classic I Married A Witch, starring Veronica Lake and Frederick March on Wednesday night. Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights has two more screenings this week. You can catch it on Tuesday at the Alamo South Lamar or Thursday at Lakeline. South Lamar is also set to host two more screenings of Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, Sunday and Wednesday nights. 

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Kingsman: The Secret ServiceFilmmaker Matthew Vaughn's already well-established catalog (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) gains a new entry this week with the release of his comedy spy adventure and arguably best film to date, Kingsman: The Secret Service. This James Bond meets Attack the Block romp was scripted by Vaughn and frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, and is based on the comic The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.

Taron Egerton stars as Eggsy, a study in wasted potential due to bad influences and an unsteady home environment who's recruited to a secret organization of upper-crust spies by Harry Hart, aka Galahad (Colin Firth). Only one recruit can complete the training, and Eggsy is at a disadvantage competing with his well-heeled rivals. This theme of class warfare is reflected in the larger story as quirky internet billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) carries out an evil world-wide plot that the Kingsmen must foil.

Let's talk about Jackson for a minute. He is prolific, to say the least, and diverse, but his character Valentine is something entirely, hilariously different, with a comical lisp and vague OCD tendencies. The character is something of a clothes horse, always sporting stylish threads but wearing the same leather baseball hat in different colors to match his outfit. Valentine is an obsessive movie buff and as much a product of pop culture as a shaper of it. He rationalizes his twisted views with grade-school logic, and he's at once the most unique and memorable character Jackson has ever brought to life.

Jackson isn't the only character playing against type. Mark Strong, usually at home as the villain, appears here as Merlin, the technical expert. Firth, however, is as usual the perfect, polished English gentleman. The picture of refinement and class, he explains to Eggsy the origins of the Kingsmen among the elite tailors of London and the virtues of manners and a bespoke suit.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is exactly what you have come to expect from Vaughn. He cleverly riffs on spy films with satire, not spoof, delivering a continuous stream of laughter on top of an action story you can really sink your teeth into. I loved little throwaway lines like the mention of a shoe phone that call back to other spy properties, and spectacular fight choreography and effects lead to an explosive climax that is more over-the-top than anything Vaughn has done in his career.

Review: Still Alice

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It's hard to begin to review a film like Still Alice. I was warned that this movie might be considered a modern horror film, as it depicts the life of one woman with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Although the film doesn't shed any positive light on getting older, it does take a deeper look at the importance of memory and family.

Alice (Julianne Moore) has just celebrated her 50th birthday surrounded by a loving husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children. She thrives on both her family and teaching at Columbia University, reknowned for her work in linguistics and communication. Life seems on track until she begins to forget words and people's names rather suddenly. A trip to the doctor reveals a rare form of familial Alzheimer's Disease and a life of slow but sure decay for Alice.

Still Alice is painful to watch; not because the film is poorly done, but because it's so truthful all the way through. Alice's decline in memory and basic functioning evokes a real fear in its audience, especially when you realize it's capable of happening to you or someone you know. Perhaps the saddest truth is watching Alice's frustration at her everyday loss, little by little. Her character is most relatable in the way that she tries so hard to cling to her memories, as many of us often do as we age.

No other actor could have played this role like Moore. Others could have portrayed it, but Moore brings a depth to Alice that is both hopeful and heartbreaking. A pleasant surprise is the complex relationship Alice has with her youngest daughter Lydia, played by Kristen Stewart. The role sheds a new light on Stewart, one of a larger acting scale not previously seen. It's perhaps the first role I've actually enjoyed her in.

The best bit of hope the story provides is learning to live in the moment. In a heartfelt speech midway through the film, Alice explains that although having this disease is a struggle, she must learn to live with her loss. What a difference it makes, she explains, to learn to be present in a single moment. That speech, that thought, echoed in my head long after the credits rolled.

Sundance Review: The Forbidden Room

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The Forbidden Room Still Photo

The Forbidden Room debuted at Sundance Film Festival, and a significant portion of the audience left the screening within the first 15 minutes of the opening credits. This polarizing film is a symphonic cacophony of visual and aural stimulation, with interludes of absurd humor to relieve the pressure. Co-directors/writers Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson along with co-writers Robert Kotyk, John Ashbery and Kim Morgan crafted the story like a traditional Russian nesting doll, with tales within tales -- and sometimes within inanimate objects such as a urine stain within which a battle rages. Lovers, murderers, chanteuses, vampire bananas, motorcycle girls and skeletons are just a few of the macabre players in this delightfully demented and disturbing tale.

The challenge of The Forbidden Room is to follow the threads of each of the stories that are interwoven in a crudely but lovingly handcrafted tapestry. After a brief introduction on "How to Take A Bath," we meet the crew of a submarine that has been trapped underwater for months due to an unstable cargo and missing captain. While the men struggle to survive by eating -- and breathing via -- flapjacks, they encounter a woodsman (Roy Dupuis) who mysteriously appears aboard their doomed home. As they contemplate the fate they are not willing to accept, they encounter even more fears in the dark rooms and corridors as well as within the woodsman's tales. The internationally acclaimed cast include Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Céline Bonnier, Charlotte Rampling, Géraldine Chaplin and Luce Vigo.

Slamdance 2015: Festival Director Anna Germanidi

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anna germanidi headshotLast spring Slamdance announced that co-founder Peter Baxter was turning over the reins of Festival Director to Anna Germanidi, who had served as festival manager since 2012. Baxter remains the president of the organization and also has oversight on Slamdance's distribution.

Germanidi received a bachelors degree in economics from the University of Piraeus as well as a filmmaking certificate from the London Film Academy, followed by a masters in television, radio and film from Syracuse University in 2011. She then joined Slamdance as a submissions and programming intern, and within six months became the programming and filmmaker relations manager.

Germanidi's diverse background, which includes production on several short films (Kiosk, Téa, To Be Discontinued), bolsters her new position, with new additions to this year's Slamdance. This year the film festival featured "Fearless Filmmaking: Art on Your Own Terms," a block of micro-shorts that were shot on Digital Bolex's D16 cameras. The micro-shorts were judged by Amber Benson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), filmmaker and former Austinite Todd Berger (It's a Disaster), and other Slamdance alumni.

I met with Germanidi during this year's festival, and we spoke about her new role and the growth of Slamdance Film Festival.

Slackerwood: What's it like to experience the festival as its director?

Germanidi: Familiar and wonderful but hectic -- it's a very interesting experience. We have a great team and I've been involved for awhile. I had take the lead this year and learn more about how to produce this festival. I had a very close relationship with the producer, so I had to learn how to actually put together the event.

Lost in the Awards Rush: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

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"Lost in the Awards Rush" is a new weekly series Slackerwood is running during the awards season, to suggest lesser-known but excellent alternatives to popular frontrunners for big movie awards.

I once heard Julianne Moore reveal in an interview that in selecting projects, she finds herself naturally drawn to playing weak and damaged characters. If you stop and think about it, that really isn't surprising given how much emotional exploration it gives an actress, and with as impeccable a career as she's had, clearly this preference has served Moore well. It's with a slight irony then that she has been pegged as the frontrunner of this year's Best Actress Oscar race for Still Alice (2014), in which she plays a linguistics professor diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It is one of Moore's bravest and most resilient characters as well as her strongest role to date.

Still Alice may feature Moore playing against type in a sense by having her portray a character overcoming one of life's greatest obstacles, but this is certainly not her first time playing a woman like Alice. The actress's compelling and almost magical turn as a midwestern housewife in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005) features Moore playing a woman of strength and determination in what may be her finest performance.

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