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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

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Guardians of the GalaxyWith its post-credits teasers for The Avengers after each superhero movie, Marvel generated excitement and buzz. After seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, I'm convinced that this movie, and not The Avengers, is the ultimate end product that all those scenes were teasing. Written by James Gunn (Super, Slither) and Nicole Perlman, and directed by Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera like nothing that's hit screens since Flash Gordon in 1980.

Based on a relatively new addition to the Marvel Comics universe, Guardians of the Galaxy fully realizes the possibilities of a comic book brought to life with phenomenal visuals and a script full of unexpected surprises and laughs. Readers of the series will notice some departures from a strict retelling, including a couple of absent members of the group (who will likely turn up in a sequel), but this is far and away the most colorful, flashy and entertaining release the studio has brought us yet.

Guardians of the Galaxy stars newly-buffed Parks & Rec star Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, aka "Star-Lord," the wisecracking leader of the group -- an unlikely misfit of a superhero with more charisma than Tony Stark. His work as a sort of outer-space Indiana Jones soon lands him in trouble with very dangerous people, and the only way through his predicament is to save the galaxy. He is joined on his quest by the lovely green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and muscle-bound alien Drax (Dave Bautista).  

It is the last two members of the group, however -- Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his bodyguard/companion Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) -- who will provide the best merchandising fodder. While Quill is something of a Luke Skywalker type, young and full of unrealized potential, Rocket and Groot are clear analogues for Han Solo and Chewbacca with a little of R2-D2 and C3PO thrown in the mix. They provide most of the comedic relief to the epic dark galactic struggle in which the story is immersed.

A strong contender for my favorite movie this summer, Guardians of the Galaxy features a feel-good soundtrack of 1970s hits and art direction that seems inspired by visions of Alejandro Jodorowsky. I can't say enough great things about this movie, and I can't wait to get to a theater to see it again.

Toronto International Film Fest Lineup Includes a Slice of Austin

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manglehorn still

The Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 4-14 this year, and local director David Gordon Green, Austin-frequenter Jason Reitman and Austin native Ethan Hawke will all be premiering films there. 

Green, whose previous Texas-filmed work includes Joe (Jette's review) and Prince Avalanche (my review), shot Manglehorn in Austin last year and North American audiences will have the chance to see it for the first time at TIFF. Manglehorn stars Al Pacino, Holly Hunter and Chris Messina and tells the story of a lonely locksmith whose heart is stuck in the past.

The film crew was spotted at various Austin locations last fall, including Sharp's Locksmith and Little Mexico on South First and the Driskill downtown. In Debbie's interview with Green at the Dallas International Film Festival in April, he said Manglehorn would be the final installment of his "Texas trilogy" and described the movie as "melancholy but full of hope and life and love."

AFS Essential Cinema: Stanwyck in Her Prime

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Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper and other "professors" in BALL OF FIRE

If last summer's pre-code Barbara Stanwyck quartet of films left you hungry for more, you will be glad to know that additional Stanwyck movies are on the way! August's Essential Cinema series from Austin Film Society will showcase films from the prime of Stanwyck's career.  AFS Programmer Lars Nilsen has included a couple of well-known favorites with two titles that may be less familiar. 

I asked Nilsen why he chose to show more of this amazing actress's movies, and here's his answer:

Last year we showed the early Stanwyck. She had all the fire and personality and talent but you couldn't really call her a mature screen artist yet. The period covered here is Stanwyck as an experienced performer, fully aware of her craft and able to deploy great reserves of feeling and audience sympathy. I feel like if we had only shown the pre-Code films we would be short changing Stanwyck, who is even better in this selection of films.

AFS Hosts 'Sin City: A Dame to Kill For' Premiere

Sin City 2 posterLast week, Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez was at San Diego Comic-Con, promoting his latest movie Sin City: A Dame to Kill For with panels and parties -- even walking the convention floor in costume.

This week, the Austin Film Society has announced it will host the Texas premiere of the Sin City sequel, which will take place Wednesday, August 20 at the Paramount Theatre. The screening will be in 3D -- how many chances have you had to watch a 3D movie downtown at the Paramount?

Tickets are on sale now only for AFS members, who have until August 5 to buy tickets at a discounted rate -- as low as $20 for the balcony. On August 6, general-public tickets go on sale with no AFS member discount. Tickets include admission to an afterparty at the Rattle Inn.

Rodriguez co-directed Sin City: A Dame to Kill For with Frank Miller, who authored the original graphic novel and wrote the movie's script. Both of them also collaborated on the 2005 movie. Returning cast members include Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Jaime King, Rosario Dawson and Bruce Willis. Among the movie's many other stars are Josh Brolin, Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt ... and Lady Gaga.

No word yet on any special guests for the premiere, but we'll keep you posted.

And just for fun, here's a photo of Rodriguez from the Texas Film Awards earlier this year, performing with musicians Patricia Vonne (who's his sister) and Alex Ruiz.

Lone Star Cinema: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room posterThe names Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow are not as prevalent in the media as they were in the last decade. These men, behind the success (such as it was) and severe failure of Enron, were eventually found guilty of fraud and other charges.

The 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is based on the book of the same name. Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) interviews the book's authors, journalist Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, along with journalists, political figures and former Enron employees. Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich), who could narrate practically anything and lend it a certain credence, talks of the bravado and bluff in the history of the energy-trading company based in Houston. 

These interviews and Coyote's narration speak to the shenanigans going down at the once-praised company. The "macho culture" at the business is described, corraborated by video clips from an extreme motocross trip and discussion of one executive's love for strippers (with requisite strip club footage). Audio of male traders making rude and conspiratorial remarks is played over scenes from the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis. In such a case, it's not shocking that a woman, Sherron Watkins, turned whistleblower against Enron.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts the real-life events as a sort of morality tale, with many of the interviewees speaking about the lousy ethics of the company's business and their "synergistic corruption."  The director includes C_SPAN video of Skilling before a Senate committee, lying about his part in the faulty financing Enron was using.  Because the company appeared to be doing so well -- they were making loads of money, anyway -- any outside person who tried to ask important questions about the business or look closer at their dealings faced repurcussions.

aGLIFF Announces Opening-Night Film, Is Crowdfunding Too

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aGLIFF logoFirst of all, in case you hadn't heard, it's called aGLIFF again. Polari is still the name of the nonprofit that organizes the annual Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, but the film festival's traditional name has prevailed.

Now that I've established that, here's the news. aGLIFF has announced its opening-night film for this year's fest -- and the dates of the fest are news too, since they've changed. aGLIFF will run from September 10-14, 2014, at the newly-renovated Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. (So now you know the theater has to be at least sort of ready by then.)

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine will open the fest on Wednesday, September 10. The documentary focuses on the late Matthew Shepard's personal life, from friends' and family's point of view. Director Michele Josue and Shepard's parents will be there for a post-screening discussion. aGLIFF also announced three other films in the lineup -- I've included the descriptions at the end of this article.

In addition, the film festival is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to enhance this year's festival experience. The funds raised will help bring in more filmmakers and special guests. The goal is $7,500 but it's a "flexible funding" campaign, so aGLIFF can keep what's raised even if it's short of the goal. Perks include tickets to films and parties during the fest, all-access badges, and ads in the program. Give enough money and you can be on the shorts jury.

Slackery News Tidbits: July 28, 2014

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2014 Texas Book Festival posterHere's the latest Austin and Texas film news.

  • Slackerwood isn't at San Diego Comic-Con this year but plenty of Austin people are, including local filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Indiewire has a roundup of the Sin City: A Dame to Kill For panel with Rodriguez, co-director Frank Miller, and several cast members. The article also includes a new (short) red-band trailer for the Sin City sequel, which hits theaters August 22.
  • We don't normally include images with Slackery News Tidbits, but the newly revealed 2014 Texas Book Festival poster (pictured right) featuring the Texas Theatre in Seguin is so gorgeous, I couldn't resist. (Someone tell me how to get one of these, please.) In addition, the festival announced eight authors that will attend -- quite an eclectic bunch, from Martin Amis to Ziggy Marley, and from Valerie Plame Wilson to chef Lidia Bastianich. Texas Book Festival runs from Oct. 25-26 ... as usual, conflicting with Austin Film Festival, and creating hard choices for Austin film/literary fans (start building up your stamina now so you can do both!).
  • Have you seen the 2013 drama Pit Stop yet? The Texas-shot feature from Austin filmmaker Yen Tan is streaming on Netflix Instant now. Debbie reviewed it at Sundance 2013 and said it "provides an intriguing glimpse of love and romance in the small towns that so many of us drive through without a second thought on the lives of its inhabitants." Pit Stop received an AFS Grant for distribution last year. (via Don Swaynos)
  • Over at Paracinema, Bryce Wilson discusses movies adapted from Texas author Joe Lansdale's novels/stories, including the latest film adaptation, Cold in July (Don's review).
  • Finally -- in case you missed it -- last week, Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott released a campaign ad to play before movies at Regal Cinemas, in which he speaks to the camera while sitting with a movie-theater audience. Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League took issue with the ad's seeming endorsement of talking and texting during movies, and the Drafthouse hastily assembled the following Drafthouse "Don't Talk" ad. (Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis responded on Twitter with "I may have spoken for 11 hours, but even I know it's never OK to talk at the movies.")

Movies This Week: July 25-31, 2014

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 Lucy

The Austin Film Society begins a very rare series this Sunday afternoon at the Marchesa called "The Sepia Screen." They'll be spotlighting 35mm "race" films from a special collection at Southern Methodist University from the days when movie theaters were segregated. This weekend, they'll be screening a 1946 short called Vanities, a 1946 feature called Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A. and 1949's feature Souls Of Sin. Elizabeth's preview has details plus some insights on the series from AFS programmer Lars Nilsen.

On Tuesday evening, AFS is hosting Two Step, a locally-shot SXSW 2014 favorite (Don's review). Director Alex R. Johnson and composer Andrew Kenny (The Wooden Birds, The American Analog Set) will be in attendance for a Q&A. The current AFS Essential Cinema series is closing out on Thursday evening with Liv and Ingmar. After filling the Marchesa's screen over the last few weeks with some of their greatest collaborations, now you'll get to see this 2012 documentary that examines the relationship between Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman. The film is presented from Liv's point-of-view, interviewed in the house that she lived in for many years with Bergman. 

Over at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, tomorrow morning you can check out a free Kid's Club screening of the Disney classic Pete's Dragon in 35mm at noon. Later in the afternoon, they'll also be paying tribute to the late James Garner with a 35mm screening of 1964's The Americanization Of Emily, which also stars Julie Andrews.

Review: Lucy

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lucy posterIn Luc Besson's unfortunately dumb latest film, Scarlett Johansson plays a character whose brain is suddenly more powerful than anyone else's on earth. The events that unfold don't require much thinking, though; Lucy is a schlocky sci-fi that never lives up to the talent involved or the sense of anticipation it tries to establish.

The trouble starts when Lucy (Johansson), a young American going to school in Taiwan, gets caught up with an obnoxious cowboy who drags her unknowingly into a dangerous situation. With lightning speed, she's forced to act as a drug mule by a vicious crime boss (Oldboy's Min-sik Choi) aiming to hook people on a new conscious-altering synthetic substance.

Things take a turn when Lucy ends up absorbing a large amount of the strange drug herself, and from there she is no longer a normal human. Increment by increment (noted by in-your-face title cards along the way), she finds herself in possession of more and more of her brain's capacity (regular people supposedly only use 10 percent of their brains, and she's hurtling towards 100 percent). With each step she becomes better able to manipulate her surroundings through telekinesis as her human qualities fall away.

Part revenge fantasy, part science puzzle and a whole lot of nonsense, Lucy never stops to take a breath as it jumps from Taiwan to Paris and picks up speed as the heroine's brain continues to evolve. Terrible one-liners and illogical plot points prevent the movie from being anything close to immersive, however, and even Johansson's confident and dedicated performance isn't enough to save the fact that this movie is a mess of cliches and artlessly violent interactions between robotic Lucy and the cartoonish bad guys.

Over-the-top nature sequences (Tree of Life minus the subtlety) are jarringly intercut with standard action scenes, and the presence of Morgan Freeman as a professor who is Lucy's only hope of explaining what's happening to her is either very cheeky or extremely lazy. His scientist character explains what's going on like he's narrating a PBS nature show, but his booming voice and calm, comforting presence end up feeling like one of a million shortcuts taken to reach a payoff that never materializes.

AFF Adds Panelists to 2014 Conference

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AFF logoThe Austin Film Festival just sent me their latest email newsletter with a list of new panelists for the 2014 conference, and I thought I'd share it with you. And yes, there's a local filmmaker in the list. I should not even have to tell you which one, since we've written about her movies enough that you can figure it out.

Here's the list:

You can read a complete list of 2014 panelists on the AFF website. Austin Film Festival runs from October 23-30 this year.

Also, don't forget that the next film in AFF's "1968" series is Rosemary's Baby, which screens next Tuesday, July 29 at 7 pm at the Texas Spirit Theater in the Texas State History Museum [tickets].

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