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Summer Indies to Catch: July 2014

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By Frank Calvillo

Though it may sound a tad far-fetched, there will be a number of theaters not showing the latest installment in Michael Bay's juggernaut Transformers film series. Likewise, there are no doubt a good many cinephiles wishing a break from the continuing saga of those deceptacons. Luckily, the indie film world has come to the rescue with one of the most diverse July arthouse lineups ever Liam Neeson in a rare non-action role, an anticipated LaCarre adaptation, a celebration of one of the movie world's most prolific figures and the unveiling of Richard Linklater's coming-of-age opus.

Third Person (currently in theaters)

Boasting one of the most impressive and eclectic casts of the year, Paul Haggis' Third Person looks to inject some much-needed human drama into a summer dominated by special effects. A writer in Paris (Neeson) is torn between his mistress (Olivia Wilde) and his estranged wife (Kim Basinger) -- while in New York, a lawyer (Maria Bello) helps a single mother (Mila Kunis) fight for rights to the child she had with an artist (James Franco) as a traveling businessman (Adrien Brody) in Rome is pulled into a con game by a beautiful, desperate woman (Moran Atias). The cast has been praised for the weight they bring to their challenging, and tricky roles (in particular Basinger, who manages so much in just a couple of scenes) and the production values are quite stunning. Haggis is certainly no stranger to the ensemble film, but rather than survey the social and political as he has in the past, in Third Person, the director focuses on the personal and complex nature of human behavior.

Slackery News Tidbits: July 7, 2014

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Here's the latest Austin and Texas film news.

  • Amplify has acquired the U.S. distribution rights to Austinites David and Nathan Zellner's Kumiko, the Treasure HunterIndiewire reports. The drama follows a lonely Japanese woman who, after becoming obsessed with Fargo, heads to Minnesota on a quest to unearth the cash-filled briefcase from the movie. Debbie reviewed the movie at Sundance. A release date hasn't yet been announced.
  • This month, the Alamo Drafthouse has announced it's "going to 11" with its programming -- celebrating music in movies in all the chain's theaters. A Hard Day's Night and This is Spinal Tap screen tonight at Alamo Ritz and Alamo Lakeline, respectively. Other musical movies scheduled for July include Hedwig and the Angry Inch, High Fidelity, Wattstax, Gimme Shelter, Empire Records and Stop Making Sense.
  • The Austin Film Festival's Free Family Film Series presents a screening of Bandolero! on Tuesday at 7 pm at the Texas Spirit Theater. James Stewart and Dean Martin star in this 1968 crime drama about two brothers on the run from a sheriff-led posse. 

Lone Star Cinema: The Newton Boys

newton boys still

After Slacker and Dazed and Confused but before Bernie, Before Midnight and the soon-to-be-released Boyhood, Richard Linklater made a charming little movie called The Newton Boys. Filmed in Texas and featuring a band of charismatic actors (most of whom have gone on to considerable success in film and/or television), this true story depicts the bank-robbing exploits of four entrepreneurial and adventure-loving brothers in the early 20th century. 

Raised in Uvalde County, Texas in a cotton farming family, the Newton brothers are an unruly bunch whose lives tell a one-of-a-kind story of American idealism and brash (but mostly non-violent) outlaw behavior. After Dock and Willis, the oldest two brothers (Vincent D'Onofrio and Matthew McConaughey), experience various real and perceived injustices (including class-based discrimination, wrongful imprisonment and general mistreatment by authority figures), they give up on trying to live lawful lives and instead decide to take what they think should be theirs.

This means emptying banks ("it's just little thieves taking from big thieves") and lying whenever necessary but vowing never to kill anyone. Thanks to the nitroglycerin supplied by cohort Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) and the endearingly slow transportation and communication systems of the 1920s, Dock and Willis (also joined by their younger brothers Jess and Joe, played by Ethan Hawke and Skeet Ulrich) are able to become incredibly successful bank robbers, and they proceed to spend several years joyfully blowing up and clearing out dozens of safes and trains from Texas to Canada. 

Review: Earth to Echo

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Earth to EchoWhen watching a release from a first-time director, it's always difficult to know exactly what to expect. Judging by the previews, you might have expected Earth to Echo to be a sophisticated, effects-driven grand adventure on the scale of The Goonies or ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. What you'll get is a charming mashup that pulls its strongest influences from classics like ET, The Goonies and The Iron Giant but never finds enough of its own identity to become more than an "echo" of those sources.

Director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden, who both worked on the small screen on the series Zombie Roadkill, have assembled a talented cast of relative unknown child actors including Teo Halm (Alex), Brian Bradley (Tuck), Reese Hartwig (Munch), and Ella Wahlestedt (Emma). The most recognizable face is the adult villain Dr. Madsen played by the unlikely Jason Gray-Stanford, best known as police Lt. Randy Disher in Monk. He turns in a very paint-by-numbers performance, but sees little screen time in a story shot entirely from the kids' point of view.

While people are calling Earth to Echo a found footage film, it is set as an autobiographical documentary shot and assembled by the character Tuck. When his friend Alex discovers that any cell phone brought into the vicinity of his house starts to exhibit unusual behavior, the two join their friend Munch, an electronics expert, to investigate. This begins a nighttime adventure as the trio follows clues to discover the tiny robot alien they name "Echo" and help it repair itself.  They are joined later by their classmate and school crush, Emma as they are chased by alien hunter Dr. Madsen.

Green makes the most of a relatively low budget, with f/x used sparingly. In a refreshing departure from the found-footage mode, every shot is from a recognizable source: one of Tuck's cameras, one of the kids' mobile phones or Echo. All are edited by Tuck to tell his story. 

Movies This Week: July 2-10, 2014

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Begin Again

With a holiday weekend ahead of us, Movies This Week is getting an early run so you can determine which flicks are best worth your time. Since it's a few days ahead of schedule, there are a few repeats from last week's column here in the rundown of repertory screenings.

The Austin Film Society is launching a new Essential Cinema series featuring some of the best collaborations of Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman this Thursday at the Marchesa. Read Chale's preview for more details. The first movie of the series is 1966's Persona and next Thursday (July 10), you'll be able to catch 1969's The Passion Of Anna, both in 35mm. A newly restored 35mm print of Alain Resnais' Je T'aime, Je T'aime is on the books this Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. Also, catch a rare screening on Tuesday night of Eggshells, a 1968 film by Tobe Hooper that was shot in Austin (Don's preview from 2011). Hooper will be joined at the Marchesa by Louis Black for a discussion of the film.

"The Complete David Lynch" series begins tonight at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz (and continues through the end of August) with a 35mm print of Eraserhead, which also encores Thursday afternoon. The second film in that series, The Elephant Man, screens in 35mm next Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

If you're looking to laugh hysterically for the 4th of July, buy tickets for the 10th anniversary screenings of Team America: World Police on Friday night at the Ritz, Lakeline, Slaughter Lane and Village locations. If you're a fan of Sylvester Stallone and the Rocky series, you can choose from three mystery screenings this upcoming Sunday evening. A different Rocky film will screen at the Ritz, Lakeline and Village locations with brand new Mondo prints available to purchase at each.

Review: Tammy

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The day Melissa McCarthy stops cracking me up will be a cold day in hell. She always plays her roles with gross honesty and wit, and doesn't take guff from anyone. With her latest film Tammy hitting theaters today, it's clear that McCarthy has a knack for less-than-glamorous, ball-busting female characters. That said, however, this movie could have done a lot better on all accounts.

Tammy is the directing debut of McCarthy's husband and actor Ben Falcone (Air Marshall Jon from Bridesmaids), not to mention the first screenplay McCarthy and Falcone have penned together. Although McCarthy's humor shines through (complete with a cameo by Falcone), it falls flat due to bizarre casting choices, a faulty plot line, and downright unrelatable characters.

The premise is that Tammy (McCarthy) is having a pretty crappy day, week and life. She loses her job (at which she doesn't seem to work too hard), she catches her husband in flagrante with the neighbor, and her mother won't let her borrow the family car to leave town.  Her grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) comes to her aid and sets the story in motion when she suggests they go on a little road trip together to leave everything behind.

Although Tammy is loveable, she's a complainer.  It's as if Falcone and McCarthy wanted to create a more sympathetic version of Megan, her character in Bridesmaids.  The cast is full of great cameos; I was beyond thrilled to see Toni Collette, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh and many other great names in the opening credits. But most of them are onscreen for such a short amount of time, I wondered why such big names are in such little, minuscule roles. I also found myself wondering why not-even-70-year old Sarandon was playing the role of a grown woman's grandmother, when she easily could be playing McCarthy's mother (who was instead played by Allison Janney).

Although the story moves forward, it's hard to stay focused. Much like Tammy, we find ourselves lacking interest in the things she's after, including love interest Bobby (Mark Duplass). The redeeming quality of the film is the handful of funny jokes and one-liners peppered throughout the story though, sadly, most of them are in the film's trailer.

The effort is there with Tammy. McCarthy can do no wrong in my eyes, and I'll of course look forward to whatever she and her husband come up with next.  I just hope to soon see the actress in a role where she doesn't have to wear Crocs with socks and Hawaiian shirts for a change.

Review: Begin Again

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"Begin Again" Movie Still

In what could be considered writer/director John Carney's Americanized version of his Academy Award-winning musical Once, the movie Begin Again (which I continue to mistakenly call "Once Again") hits just the right notes in the bittersweet scale to tug at the heartstrings ... despite Keira Knightley, who makes her singing debut, being flat in more ways than one. 

Knightley plays English singer-songwriter Greta, who finds herself alone with her guitar after her longtime boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) dumps her for fame, stardom and a younger-looking woman. Down in the dumps, Greta mentally retires to a life of university studies back in England, that is, until she's persuaded to tag along with a fellow accented friend to an open-mic night at a local dive bar. That’s where the movie's audience and Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a down-on-his-luck record producer, first hear Greta/Knightley sing a song that has yet to get out of my head. 

The duo work through the summer to collaborate on an album that captures the sounds and spirit of NYC. 

Eventually, Dan and Greta see each other as their opportunity to, like the title says, "begin again." (I'm really glad the movie's title was changed from Can a Song Save Your Life?, which just makes me think of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.) 

Photo Essay: 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' at Alamo Lakeline with Special Guests

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline has been Planet of the Apes themed since its opening last summer, so no theater in Austin (or anywhere, really) could have been more appropriately attired for a sneak preview screening of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Sunday afternoon. The movie's stars Andy Serkis (Caesar) and Gary Oldman (Dreyfuss), along with director Matt Reeves, were there in person for a Q&A. I was there too and took plenty of photos.

AFS Essential Cinema Preview: Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman, Painfully Connected

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persona still

The next Austin Film Society Essential Cinema Series, "Liv and Ingmar," will run on Thursdays at 7:30 pm from July 3-31 at the Marchesa. The following column from programmer Chale Nafus provides some context for the films.

Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, John Wayne and John Ford, Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater. Throughout film history there have been directors who frequently work with one particular actor through whom they can realize their cinematic dreams. Familiarity with an actor's face, body, voice, mannerisms and psychological depths can provide a director a preview of how a movie might look and sound even before the cameras roll.

Such was the 12-year relationship between Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann and Swedish writer/director Ingmar Bergman. Together they made eight feature films and one television miniseries, beginning with Persona (1966) and ending with Autumn Sonata (1978). They also fell in love during the production of their first film together.

The filming of Persona (which screens July 3) took place on the remote Swedish island of Fårö, an island off the coast of an island, a place Bergman had loved ever since filming Through a Glass Darkly there in 1961. He was drawn to its solitude and stark natural beauty. It easily served as a setting that forced people to confront their own inner demons as well as those of the people around them. Such would happen with Bergman and Ullmann.

Slackery News Tidbits: June 30, 2014

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Here's the latest Austin and Texas film news.

  • The Austin Film Festival's list of 2014 conference panelists grows with the recent additions of writer Lawrence Kasdan (various Star Wars films), writer/director John Patrick Shanley Doubt), writer Randall Wallace (Braveheart), writer Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street) and Ilysse McKimmie, director of the Sundance Labs feature film program. Badges are still available for the conference and festival, which takes place Oct. 23-30.
  • In more AFF news, the nonprofit's Free Family Film Series presents a screening of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey Sunday at 3 pm at the Texas Spirit Theater. The 1993 family drama based on the book The Incredible Journey follows two adventurous dogs and a cat as they escape from a ranch to reunite with their owners. Co-screenwriter of Homeward Bound, Caroline Thompson, will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A.
  • AFF news continues: The nonprofit will co-sponsored the film series "1968's Past, Present, and Future" beginning Tuesday, July 8 until Aug. 12 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Screenings of Bandolero!, Rosemary's Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey will also include Q&As with film historians. This series is free for AFF and Bullock Museum members.
  • The City of Austin's Economic Development Department, in partnership with Mid-America Arts Alliance and the Texas Commission on the Arts, is bringing an Artist INC Live Seminar to Austin. The deadline for artists to apply is tonight at 11:59 pm. The department's Cultural Arts Division will host the eight-week seminar from Oct. 4-Nov. 22. AFF's lead editor for its television series On Story, Roy Rutngamlug, was chosen to be one of six local arts professionals to act as a facilitator and lead a movie training session during the seminar.
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