HCFF Review: Mount Lawrence


Mount Lawrence posterImagine cycling more than 6,000 miles cross-country, mending dozens of popped tires, camping out in thunderstorms, coping with unexpected injuries ... and documenting it with video cameras. Filmmaker Chandler Wild takes on the challenge in the documentary Mount Lawrence, and includes the audience in his experience in an engaging, almost intimate way. The film recently won the Best Documentary award at the Hill Country Film Festival.

Wild, a former Texan living in Brooklyn, decides to embark on this adventure to honor the memory of his dad, who loved taking his family on adventurous camping and other outdoor trips ... and eventually committed suicide. He plans to cycle from New York City through California and up to Alaska, and he has to do it within a fairly limited timeframe so the weather will be okay for travelling by the time he gets to Canada. His goal is to reach Homer, Alaska and climb an as-yet-unnamed mountain that he'll hopefully be able to officially name after his father (thus the title).

From Brooklyn, Wild starts the bicycle trek with his friend Connor Lynch, who has never tried cycling of any real distance, or outdoor living, or any of this kind of thing. While it's a rough start for Lynch, having him accompany Wild is a great entryway for the audience to empathize with the situation. Eventually they hit a rhythm as they travel west and deal with all kinds of unpredictable difficulties, as well as some truly lovely moments on the road and in places like Detroit and Yellowstone Park.

Mount Lawrence follows the obvious structure of the lengthy road trip, but Wild adds more of a personal note by framing his voiceover narration as a letter to his dad. It sounds a little stiff and forced at first, but as the documentary really gets rolling and we get to know him better, his inflections sound more natural. Music from The Bones of J.R. Bones complements the odyssey very well.

For a movie shot with GoPro cameras mounted crazily on bikes and other rough-on-the-road shooting, Mount Lawrence looks especially good on a big screen, but will carry over well to home video. The opening credits sequence, designed to look like a family vacation slideshow, is a real visual highlight. At this time, the film is touring the film-fest circuit and no distribution deals or plans have been announced ... but it's hard to imagine a documentary about an adventure of such magnitude won't make it at least to online streaming outlets soon.

Texas connections: Filmmaker Chandler Wild grew up in the Houston, Texas area.

Box-Office Alternatives: The Witches of Eastwick


Mad Max: Fury Road is one of those sequels many were hoping would become a reality, yet few actually believed would see the light of day. The continuation of what is undoubtedly Australia's most popular film franchise at last comes to the big screen in a dark yet sprawling apocalyptic action piece just ripe for summertime audiences.

Without question the biggest plus in Mad Max: Fury Road was in bringing back the series' original director, George Miller. The director made his name helming the previous movies in the franchise before creating one of the most unpredictable filmographies in Hollywood, with features ranging from Lorenzo's Oil (1992) to Happy Feet (2006). However, no choice Miller made in his post-Mad Max days remained as standout as his first Hollywood outing, The Witches of Eastwick (1987).

Based on a novel by John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick centered on three women (Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer) in a small New England town, who dream up what they believe to be the perfect man while on a drunken girls' night. Almost immediately, a mysterious stranger (Jack Nicholson) movies into town and sets his sights on enchanting the three women, who are so captivated by him that they fail to realize that he is actually the Devil.

Review: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story


I Am Big Bird posterThe documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is exactly what you'd expect it to be, if you're a Muppet fan ... and also exactly what you'd hope it would be. Tonight's Violet Crown screening is sold out, but you can watch the film via online streaming outlets such as Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.

The film is a pleasant and sometimes touching profile of Caroll Spinney, who has spent decades portraying both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street and elsewhere. It's traditionally structured, primarily by time sequence -- beginning with his childhood and early puppet and acting gigs, and heading for the present. Interviews with Spinney help form the backbone of the film -- he tells us his own history, supported by other interview from his family to Sesame Street colleagues such as Frank Oz, Joan Ganz Cooney and Norman Stiles.

Naturally I Am Big Bird includes a great deal of vintage Sesame Street and Muppet footage, starting from the days when Oscar was orange and Big Bird didn't have quite so much plumage. The footage is delightful but also occasionally poignant -- it's impossible to talk about Big Bird without mentioning the episode about Mr. Hooper's death, and it's impossible to talk about Muppet history without mentioning Jim Henson's death.

Although the structure is fairly traditional, filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker manage some excellent segues that cover a lot of ground. For example, after showing scenes from Jim Henson's memorial, Spinney and Oz discuss Steve Whitmire taking over Kermit's character, which naturally leads to addressing what will happen when Spinney retires, and introduces his Big Bird apprentice, Matt Vogel. An early sequence about the filming of Big Bird in China pays off later in the film in a way that may be predictable but is no less affecting.

Noir City Austin 2015: Sunday Dispatch


There was a definite sadness on Sunday, the third day of Noir City Austin, as I made my way to the seat at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz that I had occupied all weekend. The film festival was coming to a close and my trip to Noir City was almost over. The crowd had shrunk, but those who remained were hungrier than ever for more Cornell Woolrich adaptations.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes

The first selection of the day featured another standout performance by Edward G. Robinson, an actor I always tend to typecast, yet am continuously surprised by his strong range and characterizations. In Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), Robinson plays John Triton, a phony psychic who one day realizes he has developed actual powers. As his ability to predict accidents and deaths grows stronger, his newfound gift becomes a curse, which starts to eat away at him.

I'm always intrigued when I encounter a noir offering which plays with the supernatural a bit. In fact, two of last year's selections -- (Repeat Performance (1947) and Three Strangers (1946) -- balanced the two worlds perfectly and have since become two of my favorite noir selections. Night Has a Thousand Eyes fits perfectly into that mold by playing with ideas of chance, fate and whether ordinary beings have any say in such areas. There are no typical villains or dangerous women per se in this movie, which delves into the supernatural. Yet films such as Night Has a Thousand Eyes contain their own kind of special darkness, which is both menacing and fascinating all at once.

HCFF Review: The Origins of Wit and Humor


The Origins of Wit and Humor posterCharming indie film The Origins of Wit and Humor, which screened earlier this month at the Hill Country Film Festival, appears at first to be a romantic comedy, but ultimately leans heavily on the comedy, as hinted in the title. In fact, you could argue that this movie is a romantic comedy in which humor portrays the femme fatale the protagonist pursues -- the storyline chronicles the repercussions of his entanglements with this demanding love interest.

Les (Joe Hursley) is a comedy writer who's completely devastated when seemingly out of nowhere, his longtime girlfriend moves out. He can't write, he can't function, he has no idea how to approach women, despite encouragement from his best friend Pops (Steve Lemme). On a whim, Les sends off a mail-order form from the back of an old book (with the same title as the film) and receives a "potion" that will allegedly make him irresistably funny to all women. And the big problem is that unlike "X-ray specs" and the Charles Atlas program, the potion turns out to work.

The Origins of Wit and Humor has a tendency to favor broad comedy over character and plot consistency, when given the choice, with occasional misfires. For example, the scene where Les seeks out the source of the potion he has taken is just silly and feels forced. On the other hand, a sequence that pays tribute to silent movies didn't have much tie-in to the plot but it's so funny, it hardly matters.

Hursley has a talent for hilariously appropriate facial expressions that don't cross over into shameless mugging -- he reminded me a little of Hugh Laurie back in the Bernie Wooster years. He and Lemme together make just about any situation more humorous. The female characters don't get much to do in the movie apart from Grace McPhillips as Pops' wife, who is immune to Les's charms and also pretty amusing with her own reaction shots. She also gets a nice moment in a diner with Les -- she's probably the smartest character in the film.

Noir City Austin 2015: Saturday Dispatch


When the second day of Noir City Austin came around, I was more than excited to step into the world of Cornell Woolrich again. The first night had given me a taste with Street of Chance (1942), but now it was time to dive far into the mind of one of the great innovators of the film noir genre.

Before kicking things off, Film Noir Foundation President and festival host Eddie Muller once again thanked the audience for attending and stressed that although they were there for fun, their presence signified great steps toward restoring these rare films and and keeping them alive.

"Proceeds from these festivals go straight to film rescue and restoration," he said. "It's expensive to restore these films and we thank you for helping us preserve them as films."

With that said, the Woolrich journey began.

Noir City Austin 2015: Friday Dispatch


Noir City got well underway Friday night at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz after too long of a wait since last year's inaugural festival. The three-day fest features a dizzying collection of film noir lost treasures, almost all of which are unavailable anywhere else. Friday's selections included Woman on the Run and Street of Chance.

Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation (my interview), was on hand once again to kick off the festival, introduce each movie and praise both the Drafthouse and the attendees.

"I'm a huge supporter of the Alamo Drafthouse and what they do to keep the moviegoing experience alive," said Muller. "Movies are essential to what happens in the culture and our efforts to preserve these films are helped enormously by those of you who continue to come to the movies."

Review: Welcome To Me


Welcome To Me

In her seven seasons as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Kristen Wiig became known for an array of bizarre recurring characters and for taking on difficult and highly memorable impressions (Bjork, Kathie Lee Gifford and Suze Orman spring immediately to mind). She's done her fair share of comedic film work, but in the last few years has really found her niche in indie dramadies. With The Skeleton Twins and Hateship Loveship under her belt, Wiig now appears in her strongest performance to date in Welcome to Me as Alice Klieg, a woman with borderline personality disorder. 

The concept works because it is too absurd to be true. Essentially, it begins with the fact that Alice has a complicated relationship with television. It has comforted, cared and educated her over the years. Despite her mental issues, she's stopped taking her prescribed medications and relies on piles of VHS tapes to calm her nerves. She leaves the television on in her apartment at all times, telling a visitor to her home that it hasn't been turned off in 11 years. Before she can go out into the world, Alice will sit down and pop in an old Oprah episode into the VCR, reciting every line of dialogue. To her, these Oprah episodes have been a better guide for living her life than the time spent with her therapist (Tim Robbins). Spontaneity is not Alice's specialty, often expressing her feelings in "prepared statements" handwritten in advance to spare her from getting too emotional in the heat of the moment.

One night, Alice turns on the California Lottery and matches the numbers to her recently purchased ticket to discover that she has won a massive $86 million dollar jackpot. Without the checks and balances of proper care for her illness, her newfound wealth enables her to invest in the lifelong dream of having her own talk show. She teams up with New Vibrant Studios, home to a struggling local home-shopping network owned by brothers Rich (James Marsden) and Gabe (Wes Bentley) and offers to pay upfront to produce her show, which quickly goes from a weekly program (entitled Welcome To Me, with increasingly more complex opening title sequences as the show goes on) to a daily one. 

Movies This Week: May 8-14, 2015


Far From The Madding Crowd

This weekend, the Austin Film Society is bringing She's Lost Control back to town. Caitlin caught the film on opening night at SXSW 2014. She reported: "An intense and dark slice of life, the film focuses on a woman who works as a sex surrogate while she finishes a Master's degree in psychology in New York City. Often hard-hitting and true but sometimes a little frustrating, I can't fully call this a "must-see" but I know this movie will definitely stick with me..." It plays tonight and again on Sunday afternoon at the Marchesa.

On Sunday evening, AFS will be presenting the work of two master animators. Don Hertzfeldt's award-winning short World Of Tomorrow is being paired with Cheatin', the most recent feature film from Bill Plympton. Richard Linklater's schedule last week didn't allow him to be in attendance for the Sid & Nancy screening, so another screening has been added for Monday night where he'll be there to introduce the film and lead a conversation about it afterwards. Then "Jewels In The Wasteland" gets back on track for its regular Wednesday night edition, with Linklater at the Marchesa presenting Sergio Leone's epic 1984 feature, Once Upon A Time In America. He'll be screening the extended 227-minute cut of the film in 35mm.

Frank gave us a lot of great information about this weekend's Second Annual Noir City festival by interviewing Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller about the event. Ten films, many presented in 35mm, will be screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz starting tonight. This year, all of the movies selected are the adapted works of screenwriter and novelist Cornell Woolrich. It all kicks off tonight with a restored 35mm print of 1950's Woman On The Run from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Other films presented this weekend include Phantom Lady (1944), The Guilty (1948) and No Man Of Her Own (1950). 

Box-Office Alternatives: Fading Gigolo


Sofia Vergara has made a name for herself playing ditzy and adorable characters who also happen to be both strong and passionate. Yet for me, it's always been the same character. Audiences love Vergara's animated, over-the-top approach to comedy as evidenced by her acclaimed work on TV and in the performances she's given for directors such as Garry Marshall and Robert Rodriguez. This week, the actress gets top billing alongside Reese Witherspoon in the buddy comedy Hot Pursuit (2015). Vergara and Witherspoon hope for buddy-comedy gold playing a federal witness and the officer protecting her until trial, respectively.

The film is a continuation of that brand of comedy which Vergara has so skillfully honed, yet seldom managed to escape. Her work in Chef (2014) was promising, even if the role itself was limited. However, her performance in the movie Fading Gigolo (2013) suggests the actress has more to offer than just the same lovable dizzying persona we've seen before.

Fading Gigolo is the story of a florist named Fioravante (John Turturro, who also wrote and directed), who close friend Murray (Woody Allen) recommends as a third party for a menage-a-trois between dermatologist Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone) and her best friend Selima (Vergara). After realizing he can make a living at the world's oldest profession, Fioravante's perspective begins to change when he connects with a solemn Jewish widow (Vanessa Paradis).

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