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Review: Into The Woods

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Into The Woods Still Photo

Fairy tales may appeal to young and old alike, but before the contemporary sanitized versions many of these stories, deeply rooted in centuries old folklore, were quite grim and complex with both obvious and not-so-obvious meaning.

In the 1976 book Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim analyzed the symbolic motifs and emotional importance of fairy tales, including those collected and published by the Brothers Grimm. He opined that the darkness and brutality of abandonment and death gave children the ability to process their fears and learn from the moral of each story.

The film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim 1987 musical Into the Woods weaves several favorite tales into one complex story for adults with many of our favorite characters. The base story created for this production is that of "The Baker and his Wife," a barren couple (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who desperately want to have a child.

Movies This Week: December 25-January 1, 2015

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The Interview

Six new releases are now vying for attention in the marketplace for Christmas. It was down to five, but now that Sony has authorized a last-minute limited release for The Interview, area theaters are absolutely packed with options. In terms of holiday titles, quite a few specialty screenings that were scheduled for Alamo Drafthouse Ritz have been scrapped because they added The Interview to Theater 1, but you can catch free daily Kid's Club screenings of Muppet Christmas Carol at the Alamo Slaughter Lane, Ernest Saves Christmas at South Lamar and Arthur Christmas (2D) at Alamo Lakeline each morning through New Year's Eve. 

Aside from that, there aren't many rep screenings happening until the new year. The Ritz will still be offering Monday night's "Homo Arigato!" screening of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, an award-winning 2008 documentary about the queer musician and are hosting their annual New Year's Eve feast for The Apartment in 35mm if you're willing to brave 6th Street.

Movies We've Seen

Big Eyes - Even at his worst, Tim Burton's films usually have a great visual flair and interesting characters. For this true story, he teamed up again with the screenwriters from Ed Wood to tell the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), an artist from the Sixties whose paintings were claimed by her husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) as his own. Elizabeth says "Burton's strong fascination and dedication to the artist's work is obvious, making Big Eyes one of his most deeply-felt films in years." Look for her review on Friday. (wide) 

Review: The Imitation Game

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Although working at this year's Austin Film Festival had many great perks, one of the not-so-great parts was missing out on some of the highly-anticipated marquee films.  This is why I jumped at the chance to see The Imitation Game, though I now see that maybe I didn't need to jump so quickly.

It's clear that Benedict Cumberbatch (famously known for his role on Sherlock) carries this film -- not just because the story focuses on his role as Alan Turing, but because his performance stands out amongst all of his famous castmates, including Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance.  

That said, it seems that Cumberbatch's snarky demeanor as Sherlock Holmes is what got him cast in this role. The Imitation Game seems a fitting title because his performance is not unlike the role he's portrayed for the last three seasons on Sherlock. If you're unfamiliar with the show, then perhaps you will not notice this similarity; being a big fan myself, it stood out almost instantly. In fact, most of the cast seemed to be cookie-cutter replicas of characters they have played before: stale, expired and certainly not fresh.

The story is strong, yet it doesn't know which theme it relies on.  Focusing on Turing's famous crack of the Enigma coding machine during WWII, the film stays on course -- until it takes a few pit stops to reflect on Turing's struggle with homosexuality. Although it's a powerful performance, I felt confused on what emotion to resonate with throughout. It seems as if the filmmakers were taking on some sort of studio note to try and make Turing more sympathetic. Although it does achieve this, it feels forced.

It surprises me that The Imitation Game is making its debut on Christmas Day.  Perhaps a marketing team felt that Cumberbatch and Knightly would draw in ticket sales, but the film itself doesn't have that grandiose feel most holiday releases have.  It does seem that this role will probably draw some Oscar buzz for Cumberbatch -- it already seems to have drawn an 8.4 rating out of a scale of 10 on IMDb. Maybe I'm just a holiday release Scrooge; maybe a box-office Christmas miracle will happen after all.

Review: The Interview

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The InterviewThe great The Interview saga of 2014 has reached its apex. After the film was publicized, parent studio Sony Pictures found itself victim to the largest, most destructive and costly computer hacking operation in history. Emails, personal information of employees including social security numbers, and untold other secrets were not only stolen, but partially released by the culprits with a threat to do more damage if the movie was released. Last week, Sony caved to the major theater chains and cancelled the release, spawning innumerable conversations about free speech in the digital age.

And just before that, I got to see it along with 200-ish other attendees at Butt-numb-a-thon, the annual birthday party for AICN founder Harry Knowles where vintage films are celebrated alongside big Hollywood premieres and sneak peeks. The Interview played fifth in the lineup of 12 films, immediately after Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice. Directors Evan Goldberg (This is the End) and Seth Rogen apologized during their introduction, saying they didn't expect to follow a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. In fact, the madcap hilarity was the perfect pick-me-up following the dark and low-key Inherent Vice as we approached the halfway mark of 24 hours of movie watching.

The Interview asks a question many have probably pondered: When a journalist is given an opportunity to interview one of the most hated dictators on the planet, wouldn't the U.S. government become involved to attempt an assassination? And would the journalist want to go through with it? Of course, if you've seen the previous work of those involved in this comedy, you know what to expect. Rogen and costar James Franco are this century's version of The Three Stooges, minus Moe (or perhaps replacing Moe with "Mo," the near-homosexual bro-fessional screen relationship they have together).

In the midst of their antics, I realized The Interview, like many great comedies, doesn't just lampoon its subject. It paints Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un as a caricature, a spoiled man-child twisted by his father into a creature that loves American culture but responds to criticism with extreme force and explosions of rage. But, it also pokes fun at the U.S. government, the traditional news media, and the American public's gluttonous fascination with info-tainment.

Review: Unbroken

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UnbrokenEarlier this year, Louie Zamperini died at the age of 97. He was the son of Italian immigrants, born in 1917 in New York state. His family relocated to Torrance, California where he was on the verge of becoming a hooligan until his older brother Pete got him involved with the school track team. By the time he was 19, he had qualified for the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the 5000-meter race. 

An entire feature-length film could probably be made just about his career as a runner, but the full scope of the man's endurance is told here in Angelina Jolie's second directorial effort. Unbroken really feels like three movies in one, weaving in the story of Zamperini's Olympic success, his time in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and his eventual struggles as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. In the film, British actor Jack O'Connell (Starred Up) gives an emotionally raw and physically demanding career-making performance as Zamperini. 

Joel and Ethan Coen adapated Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 book (with screenplay assistance from Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson) and I think that the first half of the film truly shines as it shifts through time from Zamperini's childhood to the plane crash in 1943 over the Pacific Ocean that found him and two other fellow soldiers (Finn Wittrock, Noah and Domhnall Gleeson, About Time) stuck in a life boat for 47 days. 

There is an intensity to the film's air combat sequences that really make you feel as though you're in the plane with these young men, despite the fact that the quality on some of the effects is limited. As the story unfolds, it truly makes you wonder how anybody could stay so strong for so long. Zamperini never gave up hope, no matter what happened to him, that he would survive. It was difficult inititally for me during the scenes where the men where stranded in the Pacific Ocean to not recall last year's All Is Lost, but that was a fleeting feeling. As days turn to weeks, the desperation between the men becomes palpable and I began to forget that we hadn't even gotten to the worst part of Zamperini's life. 

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: 'Tis the Season for Stanwyck

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Christmas in Connecticut 

In August, the Austin Film Society series "Stanwyck in Her Prime" showcased some of the titles that made Barbara Stanwyck one of the greatest actresses of her generation. It featured such classic Stanwyck staples as Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941), both essential highlights in Stanwyck's stellar career. As a result of the series popularity, and since it's the holidays, I thought I'd spotlight the few but worthwhile Christmas movies Stanwyck starred in.

Not many think of Stanwyck as an actress who would be caught dead in a Christmas movie. Her brand of playing women both tough and tragic made her one of the most formidable screen heroines of all time. And yet, if you are a fan of Stanwyck's, its not surprising to see her in these films since they provided the actress grade-A roles with directors and co-stars also at the top of their game.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

So much of Stanwyck's filmography featured the actress playing complicated women (some good, some bad) in situations fraught with intense conflict. However, Christmas in Connecticut is one of those rare exceptions where the great Stanwyck was able to leave her trademark intensity at home and indulge in one of her most playful roles ever. Stanwyck plays celebrated homemaker Elizabeth Lane, a 1940s Martha Stewart who delights millions of readers with sumptuous recipes and household hints through a wildly popular magazine column. When a rescued soldier (Dennis Morgan) expresses a desire to meet the domestic diva, the magazine's publishing magnate (Sydney Greenstreet) demands that she invite him to her Connecticut farm for a homemade Christmas without realizing that Elizabeth is actually a fraud who can't really cook.

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: Black Christmas

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Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

The idea of a strange costumed man breaking into my home is terrifying. It's made even more terrifying under fluorescent lights, and with the amount of sharp Christmas-related objects strewn around most homes during the holidays a sleigh ride takes on a new meaning (see the tagline for the 2006 Black Christmas remake).

I first saw Black Christmas in high school, perusing the Blockbuster horror aisle. My two-week winter break was underway and I was tired of watching ABC Family Channel's "25 Days of Christmas." The cover of Black Christmas sold me: a young woman sitting in a rocking chair with a plastic bag over her head. I thought about the plastic bag that covered the winter coat I received as an early Christmas present, which before hung in my closet hopeful for cold weather, but now took on an ominous presence. 

Black Christmas (its original 1974 theatrical title was the corny Silent Night, Evil Night) tells the now-done-to-death story of a group of college women staying in their sorority house during winter break. This decision proves to be more mind-numbing than listening to half-drunk family members rattle on about their problems.

Holiday Favorites 2014: Russell Wayne Groves and 'Christmas Vacation'

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Christmas Vacation Still Photo

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Today's pick comes from local actor and producer Russell Wayne Groves (Lord Montagu, Intramural):

Reminiscing on my childhood I can't remember a Christmas without my entire family laughing at Chevy Chase. The physical humor coupled with his smoky hiss laugh is what the holidays were and are still made of.

It’s very rare for a film to have immense re-watchability, but Christmas Vacation somehow exhibits that quality in bucketloads. I fondly remember in high school performing Chevy’s monologue "Hap-Hap Happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby danced..." in front of my drama class, probably to the dismay of my teacher.

Movies This Week: December 19-24, 2014

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 Foxcatcher

With Christmas around the bend, there's not nearly as much specialty programming from now until the end of the year, but there's still some great screenings worth mentioning. The Austin Film Society will be closing out 2014 with Cracking Up, a 1983 comedy from Jerry Lewis in 35mm. Bryan Connolly will be on hand for a post-film discussion for the showings tonight and again on Sunday evening.

In terms of the rest of the week in specialty screenings, they are pretty exclusively Christmas-themed. The Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter has free daily screenings of Arthur Christmas for Alamo Kids Club and Home Alone pizza parties on Sunday and Tuesday (which also will happen at the Alamo Lakeline). The Alamo Ritz has a digital restoration of Meet Me In St. Louis on Saturday and Sunday for Broadway Brunch, Gremlins on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday, Die Hard in 35mm from Sunday through Wednesday for daily shows, the bizarre Finnish film Rare Exports on Sunday and Tuesday and John Ford's Christmas classic Donovan's Reef starring John Wayne on Monday night. There are also a few quote-along screenings again this week of Love Actually and Elf.

The Alamo Village has Muppet Christmas Carol for free daily Alamo Kids Club screenings each morning and is also giving you one more shot for a digital restoration of It's A Wonderful Life on Wednesday. Both the Alamo South Lamar and Lakeline locations have A Christmas Story with a Chinese dinner on Monday while it also plays again on Wednesday only at Lamar. 

Review: Annie

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Rose Byrne and Quvenzhané Wallis take to a tabletop in Annie

Let me preface this review by acknowledging my lifelong attachment to the 1982 movie Annie. That movie's soundtrack was one of the few original cassettes my sister and I as small kids owned that wasn't a copy my dad recorded off records checked out from the library (yes, I am totally dating myself here).  I had all the songs memorized as a kid, and still remember most of the lyrics today to "Dumb Dog," "You're Never Fully Dressed (Without a Smile)," "Maybe," "Tomorrow"... you get the idea. I came in skeptical of the remake/new take. If my musical-loving friend hadn't asked me to get her into the preview screening, I might have skipped the whole thing. And that would have been a shame.

This 2014 version caused much hullabaloo before production even began as charmer Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) was cast in the title role. Racists took to social media to whine about a black actress playing Annie, others applauded the forward-thinking of the casting, and I just wondered if she could sing. After seeing the film I will tell you, dear reader, she can sing -- with a little help from autotune.

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