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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.

Movies This Week: November 7-13, 2014

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Big Hero 6

With the Austin Film Festival now in our collective rearview mirrors, the local film calendar is going to start turning more actively towards some of the biggest films of the year. Most of them will not be blockbusters (although Interstellar certainly is), but many titles will be hopefuls for awards season. As far as Christopher Nolan's new film goes, we are very fortunate to live in a market where it's playing in all available formats. While you can see it in 4K digital or even digital IMAX, the preferred format for this one is actual film and you can catch local screenings in 35mm, 70mm (at the Ritz) and even a proper 15-perf 70mm IMAX print at the Bob Bullock (where the screen towers six stories above you). Sadly, this will be the final movie screened on film at the museum before they convert to digital projection, so I'd encourage you to take in the experience there.

Birdman (Mike's review) expands to the multiplex this weekend as Fox Searchlight adds screens at the AMC Barton Creek and Cinemark Hill Country Galleria (while continuing on at Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline, Alamo South Lamar, Regal Arbor and Violet Crown) and Sony Pictures Classics is taking Whiplash to the Alamo South Lamar (while it continues at Regal Arbor and Violet Crown). 

The Austin Film Society has a special screening tonight of Austin Film Festival alum Winter In The Blood at the Marchesa. Local filmmakers (and twin brothers) Alex and Andrew Smith (The Slaughter Rule) had their latest feature picked up for distribution this fall by Kino Lorber. Featuring a score by Austin rockers Heartless Bastards, Alex Smith and some of the cast members will be in attendance for a Q&A after tonight's screening.

Review: Big Hero 6

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Big Hero 6The Walt Disney Animation Studios team continues to knock hits out of the park, following up Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen with this weekend's adaptation of the Marvel comic Big Hero 6. Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams (Bolt), Big Hero 6 is perhaps a first in presenting modern Asian-American leads as positive role models in a major Hollywood studio production for children. 

Young Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is something of a robotics savant, hustling cash in the underground world of robot fighting a la Real Steel. He's encouraged by older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) to apply himself and join him in the advanced robotics program led by Roberto Callaghan (James Cromwell). There he meets fellow students Go Go (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (TJ Miller).

An unexpected disaster leaves Hiro reeling, and with the help of his friends and Baymax (Scott Adsit), his brother's helpful medical robot, Hiro transforms the group into superheroes in order to fight the evil threatening their city of San Fransokyo.

The screenplay by Jordan Roberts, Robert L Baird and Daniel Gerson is fun for kids, presenting science as a cool way to create fun things. It also treads into some darker subject matter, including how to responsibly deal with grief. Nevertheless, Big Hero 6 is clever and funny with entertaining characters (though fans of the comic will note some changes due to the rights to two characters being owned by 20th Century Fox).

Each character in Big Hero 6 has unique and useful powers fitting their personalities and skills, and everyone is sure to choose a favorite. (Mine was TJ Miller-voiced Fred, who loves to pretend he is a kaiju and gets many of the funniest lines as they are improvised by the actor-comedian.) "Come early, stay late," is the rule for this so that you won't miss the absolutely brilliant short Feast playing along with it or the hilarious post-credits stinger.

AFF Review: The Suicide Theory

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Suicide Theory Still PhotoTo what length would a desperate and grief-stricken person go to end their life? Several failed attempts at suicide drive Percival (Leon Cain) to hire a professional hitman to kill him in The Suicide Theory, an Australian thriller written by Michael Kospiah and directed by Dru Brown.

Steven Ray (Steve Mouzakis) is dealing with his own personal tragedy -- his pregnant wife Annie (Zoe de Plevitz) was killed in a hit-and-run accident while crossing the street. He's developed such a phobia that he is stricken with seizures any time he attempts to step off a street curb, to the extent of taking cabs just to cross the block. The two men meet when Percival literally jumps from a building and lands on a cab that Steven is in, casing his next victim. What appears to be a chance meeting to Steven is fate to Percival, who appears to be delusional. However, as Steven repeatedly attempts yet fails to kill Percival, he begins to believe and even identify with Percival's desperation.

As the story of The Suicide Theory further unfolds, we learn that the tragic bond which brings these two unlikely friends together is much darker and complex than can be imagined. As the pieces of the puzzle are revealed and put in place, I found myself on the edge of my seat and engrossed in the revelations. Just enough comedic writing is woven in to help alleviate nervous tension from the seriousness of this film's main plot.

Review: Interstellar

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InterstellarTake the theory of relativity, theories about space and time, and quantum physics; combine them with intense emotions and exploration of relationships, both personal and familial; write a 169-page screenplay about it all, then bring said screenplay to life. While this task sounds like something way over my film-school brain, Christopher Nolan makes it seem easy as cake with his latest movie, Interstellar.

I've watched many a film buff get into heated debates about Nolan's work. There are those who argue his work is flashy, dazzling you with inexplicable knowledge and plot while melting your eyeballs with IMAX cinematography. On the other hand, there are those who argue his work is brilliant, each camera move and plot point an intricate dance filled with depth and emotion. I tend to fall into the middle of this arguement.

The basic premise is this: Cooper (played by Texas favorite, Matthew McConaughey) is a former-engineer-turned-farmer living with his young daugher Murphy and teenage son Tom. We understand right away that Earth is in trouble: All its resources have been utilized and the world is running out of time to find food and water. By some happenstance of the universe, Cooper finds his way over to a secret NASA location, learning about a secret mission to find another planet for humans to live on ... and of course, Cooper is the only man to pilot said ship to save the human race.

While there is no doubt that Nolan's work is (inter)stellar, it can definitely be cumbersome.  I found myself losing focus toward the middle of Interstellar, unsure of what the end result of this 169-minute saga would be. Thankfully, the story reeled back around and left for a compelling (and quite thought-provoking) third act.

One of the few downsides to the movie was the scientific jargon thrown around between characters. Poor line delivery made me wonder (in just a few instances) what the final theory actually was. This film also features a fun game of "Guess how many Hollywood celebs you can spot in space!"

AFF Review: The History of Time Travel

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The History of Time Travel Still Photo

“If you think Hitler with an atomic bomb is bad, imagine Stalin with a time machine.”

As discussed in Austin Film Festival panel "Science Fiction Versus Science Fact," much of fiction is driven by the "What if?" In his feature directorial debut The History of Time Travel, Stephen F. Austin State University student filmmaker Ricky Kennedy takes on the high concept of time travel and the consequences of its use on both personal and world events. Kennedy wrote, directed and edited this fictional documentary, which premiered at AFF.

Filmed entirely on location in Nacogdoches, Texas, The History of Time Travel is presented as a well-constructed docudrama, relating the fictional story of the Indiana Project and the biography of a key contributor, physicist Edward Page (Daniel May). This project is the United States response to reports that Hitler was less interested in nuclear weapons after his scientists began exploring time travel as an ultimate power. Page works long hours for decades, neglecting his wife Anne (Elizabeth Lestina) and son Richard in the hopes of achieving one of man's greatest desires: the ability to travel through time and alter events in one's favor.

AFF Review: The Texas Promise

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texas promiseIn 2011, the Texas Legislature voted to remove $5.4 billion from the state's education budget. Vanessa Roth's intelligent and informative documentary, The Texas Promise, examines some of the reasons behind this decision as well as various effects it had on Texas public schools.

The film opens with a series of hopeful young students talking about what they want to be when they grow up, but the narrative quickly moves into the nitty gritty of the matter at hand. Thanks to the people in charge at the governmental level, these students probably have a challenging path ahead of them for reasons that have more to do with money and politics than their own academic skills and goals.

Roth helps to explain the situation by relying on quite a bit of footage captured during the legislative debates leading up to the 2011 decision, and these moments help to provide a summary of the players on either side of the issue (though you may not have realized "funding public schools" could be such a divisive idea). Dan Patrick and Wendy Davis are both featured, making The Texas Promise relevant to this week's elections, also.

Roth also interviews teachers, parents, academics and analysts to provide greater scope, and through the eyes of these individuals it becomes clear how dire the situation is for so many Texans. It isn't just overcrowded classrooms and overworked teachers, it's the misplaced priorities among those who hold power that makes the future seem grim, especially for the non-wealthy.

Throughout the film, Roth does an excellent job of balancing emotion with facts, and she succeeds in illuminating a complex issue without resorting to oversentimentality or oversimplification. It's practically impossible to simplify such a mess, anyway, but it's heartening to see that enough people were outraged enough to protest and ultimately sue the state to try and recover some of the lost funds. 

Mondo Gallery Hosts 'Batman 75th Anniversary' Show

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 Mondo Gallery Batman 75th Anniversary

Just a week before Halloween, Mondo launched its "Batman 75th Anniversary" gallery show featuring prints and original works from dozens of artists including Martin Ansin, Craig Drake, Jason Edmiston, Kilian Eng, Francesco Francavilla, Brandon Holt, Alex Pardee, JC Richard, Kevin Tong, Tom Whalen, and many others. Check out my photos below from opening night.

AFF Review: The Sideways Light

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Lindsay Burdge in The Sideways Light

Last Sunday, after a day at Austin Film Festival packed with a lackluster panel, a surprisingly well-done foreign shorts program, and the screening of a Reese Witherspoon film I've been keen to see for months, I closed the evening with The Sideways Light at the Alamo Drafthouse Village.  The thriller was a chilling cap to the night.

In her large house, sextuagenarian Ruth (Annalee Jefferies, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, The Girl) putters around and talks to herself (or so we and her daughter assume). Worried about her ailing mother, Lily (Lindsay Burdge, A Teacher, Frances Ha) has moved back home for the interim. Daughter Lily uneasily slips into the role of caretaker as her mom becomes more childlike. She takes breaks offered by her brother Sam (Mark Reeb, Eve of Understanding, Sun Don't Shine) to visit and flirt with bar owner Aidan (Matthew Newton, Queen of the Damned, Farscape).

Ruth has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, but that's not all she's dealing with. She hates to leave the house because "they look after me." Lily comes to realize who "they" are as the film progresses.

Review: Nightcrawler

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Nightcrawler

Over the last several years Dan Gilroy has made a name for himself in Hollywood as a screenwriter. After a few misses, he struck gold with The Bourne Legacy, a script that really put him on the map and ended up giving him the power to jump behind the camera. His directorial debut, Nightcrawler, is a slick thriller, even though it plays out like a gritty b-movie. Robert Elswit, Paul Thomas Anderson's frequent cinematographer, captures the streets and vistas of Los Angeles in an alluringly dangerous way instantly during the opening credits.

We're seduced by the city and then introduced to Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who seems to have at least some level of Asperger's syndrome (or, at bare minimum, is not good at communicating with other people). We cannot really discern much about his life initially. Living in a small apartment and seemingly without a job, he drives around the city late at night looking for things he can steal and sell for scrap money. On the expressway, he comes across an accident site right as the police are beginning to assist. He gets out of his car and is transfixed by the scene, even more so when a fast moving van pulls up alongside him and runs toward the cops with video cameras in their hands, capturing the accident which has now turned into a dramatic police rescue before the car engulfs in flames.

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