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Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

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Kung Fu Panda 2 screenshot

I'll admit first off that I really liked Kung Fu Panda when it came out a few years back. Therefore, it's not that big of a surprise that I loved Kung Fu Panda 2. This sequel, helmed by Jennifer Yuh in her film directing debut, comes the closest to Pixar heart than any other Dreamworks animated movie I've seen, but still keeps the laughs coming.

A colorful shadow puppet tale kicks off the movie. In this prologue, we learn the story of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock who becomes so obsessed with firepower that his parents kick him out of their kingdom. Then we join our cuddly protagonist Po (Jack Black) and his Furious Five friends as they play with dumplings and fight Lord Shen's underlings, who are stealing metal from poor villagers.

Lord Shen forges the stolen metal for a cannon he uses to take out one of Po's kung-fu heroes, Master Thundering Rhino (Victor Garber!), when he refuses Shen entry into his childhood home. Po and the Furious Five must travel to protect this city from destruction, spouting silliness along the way. Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) warns the group that Shen's weapons could mean the end of kung fu. Po replies, "But I just got kung fu!" This main plotline may seem somewhat predictable, but it's handled in such an enjoyable fashion that it didn't bother me.

Review: The Hangover Part II

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The Hangover Part III really wanted to love The Hangover Part II. Its predecessor left me laughing for days. The trio of Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis was lightning in a bottle, and the over-the-top script pushed the limits in the name of harmless fun. I'm not a pessimist who expects to hate every sequel, and I was really looking forward to this second outing, also directed by Todd Phillips.

I didn't believe early reports that it was simply a rehash of the original script, though it would seem so at first. Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis again wake up and trace the events of a drug-fueled night of partying, and have to complete a mission in time to return for a wedding. Again, the jokes are outrageous, and The Hangover Part II is good for a few laughs, but that's where the similarity ends.

My first complaint is that it takes 30 minutes to muddle through the setup at the beginning of the movie. There's a scene at Stu's (Helms) office, another at the Garner mansion, a banquet in Thailand, and so on. It really takes a while to get moving as compared to the snappy script of The Hangover.

Second problem regards the fourth companion, Justin Bartha as Doug. Doug spent the entirety of the first movie missing (and it was his wedding they had to get to). I had hoped in The Hangover Part II, we would see more of him and it would bring a new dynamic that would allow Bartha to show off his comedic chops. Instead, though Doug gets more screen time, he is stuck back at the hotel while the rest of the "wolf pack" parties without him. Taking his place as the missing man and object of the search is Mason Lee as Stu's soon-to-be brother-in-law, Teddy.

Third problem I had was that the dynamic here is changed. Cooper is no longer really leading the group and feels like he's just along for the ride. He's underused, and isn't really the focus of any of the gags, which are held almost exclusively for Helms. It felt almost like he has grown to be too big a star and was doing his pals a favor being in their little movie.

VOD Review: How to Fold a Flag

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How to Fold a Flag

The Iraq war documentary How to Fold a Flag opens with an intriguing quote from German writer and military veteran Ernst Jünger: "We were asked to believe that the war was over. We laughed. For we were the war."

This quote is wholly appropriate for the SXSW 2010 film, which has just become available on cable VOD and online, including Amazon Instant Video. Like much of Jünger's writing, How to Fold a Flag delves into the isolation soldiers feel while fighting wars and after returning to their "normal" lives. (Defining what is "normal" is a recurring theme in the film.) The quote also is appropriate in that Jünger was a conservative German nationalist; How to Fold a Flag presents the American equivalent in all its flag-wrapped glory.

Directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker follow up on five soldiers featured in their acclaimed 2004 documentary Gunner Palace. How to Fold a Flag updates us on the civilian lives of four soldiers, while also interviewing the parents of a fifth soldier killed in Iraq. Like its predecessor, the film is an unblinking and often caustic look at the Iraq war's toll.

2011 Guide to Free (and Cheap) Summer Movies in Austin

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Deep Eddy Splash Party Movie Night

Check out our 2012 Guide to Free (and Cheap) Summer Movies in Austin for the latest information.

Updated May 31 with specific films/dates for 101x Summer Cinema Series.

It's nearly triple-digit weather, and those icy-cold movie theaters are beckoning, often too tempting to resist. Unfortunately, sometimes your wallet has to resist, especially with prices for first-run 3D movies and concessions, especially especially if you're bringing kids along or paying babysitters.

So, for the third year running, Slackerwood is happy to bring you our guide to free and cheap summer movies in Austin. Some long-running free programs and series have started charging admission -- of a dollar or two. You can still find great deals on moviegoing in this town if you're on a budget. (And is it just me, or are half the summer movie programs in town this year screening Dazed and Confused? Not that there's any reason to complain about that!)

Some free series from previous years are gone: AMC dropped its Summer Movie Camp this year. South Austin restaurant Nueva Onda closed last month, which means the excellent indie-centric Nueva Onda Film Series is on hiatus until the programmers can find a new location. Movies in the Park is still around but it's not at Republic Square Park this summer; instead, head over to Fiesta Gardens for some free films. On the other hand, I had originally lamented the end of Cinema East, and just got a press release a couple of days ago telling me it's alive and well. We also have some new venues like the Blue Starlite Drive-In.

Texas Rocks Cannes 2011

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Cannes 2011When I originally wrote about Austin and Texas films playing at Cannes this year, I had no idea that two of them would walk away with major awards. It has been a great year for Texas movies at the French festival.

The biggest news is that Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life took home the Palme D'Or, the grand prize of the entire festival. The Smithville-shot movie opens in Austin on June 3 -- however, if you want to see it earlier, Austin Film Society is hosting a special screening and benefit reception on Tuesday, May 31 at the Paramount.

In addition, Austin filmmaker Jeff Nichols' movie Take Shelter won the Grand Prize in the Critics' Week program ... and in that same category, Nichols also won the screenwriting award for his film. Take Shelter premiered at Cannes this year and will get a theatrical release in the fall from Sony Picture Classics ... no word yet on when we'll see it in Austin. Both Take Shelter and The Tree of Life star Jessica Chastain, who will be attending the AFS screening of Malick's film next week.

Other Cannes coverage and news:

  • Charles Ealy at the Austin American-Statesman has a good round-up of all the Austin folks at Cannes this year. 
  • Ealy also reminds us that even a Woody Allen movie can have Texas ties. Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, which played Cannes (and will open in Austin on June 10), stars UT alum and Dallas native Owen Wilson.

Movies This Week: Cave of Skateland Pirates

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I suppose there's some assumption that every single potential moviegoer will be seeing the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, since very little else is opening in Austin today. However, the indie choices are quite, well, choice, so those of you who don't want to watch Johnny Depp camping it up in 3D (wow, when I describe it that way I almost want to go) have some other excellent options.

In addition, don't forget that the Paramount's annual Summer Classic Film Series starts tonight with, natch, Casablanca. The selection this year is especially inspired so do check out the schedule. I just bought a Film Fan membership myself and hope to be over there as much as I can manage.

Movies We've Seen:

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides -- The fourth movie in the popular series based on a Disney World ride will certainly draw big crowds this weekend. I do like seeing Johnny Depp in action as Captain Jack, but am feeling a little tired of the series myself (and burned out on 3D extravaganzas). But Mike says it's the best film since the first one, so maybe I need to rethink this. (wide)
  • Skateland -- This locally produced movie played SXSW in 2010 and is now seeing a theatrical release. It's a sweet drama about East Texas teenagers in the 1980s, obviously inspired by John Hughes and that crowd. Shiloh Fernandez and Ashley Greene star. We've got tons of coverage for you to read: Don's review, Debbie's interview with Austin writer/producer Brandon Freeman, Debbie's SXSW review, and some fun photos of the cast from SXSW. (Arbor, Tinseltown North and South)

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

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Since Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was released in 2003, I have been an enormous fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. No other film series in the last decade has captured my imagination the way Pirates did with its astounding special effects and swashbuckling adventure.

But it never would have been a success without Johnny Depp's inspired performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. Depp practically invented his own pirate language as Sparrow, and indeed, Jack Sparrow costumes dominated Halloween parties that year (and the next). While the first three installments encapsulated the tale of William Turner and Elizabeth Swann, they were also undeniably the adventures of Jack Sparrow on his quest for fortune, reknown and life eternal.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End not only concluded the Elizabeth-William arc, it neatly set up a new adventure with the map to the Fountain of Youth. Returning for a fourth movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Depp reunites with Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa and joins Ian McShane's dread pirate Blackbeard as well as Penélope Cruz.

As the ultimate fan of the Pirates series, I was anxious that Gore Verbinski would not be returning to direct (probably too busy working on that masterpiece Rango, see my review here), but Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) is no slouch. I needn't have feared as On Stranger Tides captured the magic and even provided a few pleasant surprises. The decision to film in 3D was my main disagreement. 3D would have better served the epic scope of At World's End, but was entirely unnecessary here.

On Stranger Tides is ostensibly designed as the first of a new trilogy, and is scaled back greatly in scope. While the previous Pirates outings were heavy with sea travel and battles, even going all the way to the end of the world and back, the events in On Stranger Tides take place primarily on land, reflecting a smaller budget. In fact, the action moves smoothly between six locations by my count, and I don't recall there being any battles at sea. However, the film tells a good story, and the land-bound action is entertaining.

Interview: Brandon Freeman, 'Skateland'

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Brandon Freeman on the set of 'Skateland'

One of the independent films I enjoyed at SXSW 2010 was Skateland, set in small-town Texas during the 1980s. Starring Shiloh Fernandez (Deadgirl, Red Riding Hood) and Ashley Greene (The Twilight Saga, Radio Free Albemuth), Skateland was produced by Freeman Films, an Austin-based movie production company founded by Skateland writer/executive producer Brandon Freeman. As a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, Freeman enjoyed working within the local film community to bring his first feature film to the screen. Skateland opens in Austin this Friday -- check out my SXSW review and Don's review.

I spoke with Brandon Freeman by phone last week as he prepared for the L.A. premiere of Skateland. Find out what he had to say about working with Ashley Greene before her Twilight stardom, the portrayal of the feminist movement of the 80s in his movie and the impact of MTV on small-town Texas after the jump.

Review: Skateland

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Skateland

I came of age in the early 1980s, but feel no nostalgia for the era. From its anti-government politics to its greed-fueled economic ethos to its mostly insipid popular culture, the decade of Ronald Reagan, Madonna and Dallas wasn't exactly America's finest hour. Thirty years later, sentiments like "government is the problem" and soulless techno-pop like "Rock the Casbah" are hardly the stuff of fond memories. (That is, at least for those of us who so wish we'd come of age during America's coolest decade, the 1960s.)

That said, I do enjoy some modern cinematic takes on the Eighties; it's interesting to see the era filtered through various filmmakers' visions, even if their sentiments are more nostalgic than mine. I particularly enjoy films that regard Eighties culture with a mixture of warm fuzziness and well deserved mockery.

A case in point is Skateland, a pleasantly entertaining story about coming of age in a small Texas town in 1983. The film sets an oft-told tale of dawning adulthood and family turmoil against an authentic backdrop of, well, 1983. (Think Camaros, skin-tight jeans and music stores -- remember those? -- in shopping malls. 'Nuff said.)

Skateland's protagonist is 19-year-old Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez), manager of his town's once-popular but now fading roller rink. Although he toys with a writing career (the awards on his bedroom wall attest to his talent), Ritchie is mostly content to work at his dead-end job, party with his friends and maintain a halfhearted relationship with his friend Michelle (Ashley Greene).

Quick Snaps: 'Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story' Filmmakers

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Monopoly Filmmakers

Every year Austin Film Festival hosts the "Hair of the Dog" brunch, and at the 2010 event I met Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story co-producer Craig Bentley and director/co-producer Kevin Tostado, pictured above. The pair could be found passing out "money" during the fest or playing Monopoly in the Driskill Bar. Their engaging documentary appeals to both young and old with a nostalgic look at a cultural phenomenon enjoyed for almost a century and loved across the world -- read my review.

If you've yet to see Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story, don't miss your chance. The Alamo Drafthouse will be hosting a special screening at the Lake Creek theater on Monday, May 23 at 7 pm.  I'm disappointed I missed the Monopoly playing party along with Mr. Monopoly's appearance at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar earlier this week, but I can console myself with a friendly game at home -- after watching Under the Boardwalk last fall I was inspired to buy a game set for myself.

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