For decades, law enforcement agencies have been warning people of a common phone scam: An elderly person receives a phone call from someone pretending to be the person's grandchild or other family member. The caller says he's desperate for money, and asks the victim to deposit money in a bank account. This scam is often successful; the elderly victims, feeling lonely and forgotten, want to help their family members and are easily conned.
Normally, the victims lose money but never meet the con artists or suffer any physical harm. But in the stylish thriller Two Step, the scam turns deadly and personal.
In the Austin-made film, career criminal Webb (James Landry Hébert) is part of ring of phone scammers, making his calls from prison. When he's released, he's ready to continue his criminal ways and reunite with his girlfriend and fellow scammer, Amy (Ashley Spillers). But the reunion doesn't go as planned. Fed up with Webb's physical and emotional abuse, Amy leaves him the minute he returns home, taking their ill-gotten cash with her. Even worse, he owes $10,000 to the ringleader, Duane (Jason Douglas), who banishes him from the ring for his erratic and violent ways. But Webb is determined to repay the money and make amends with his boss.
No No: A Dockumentary was directed by Austinite Jeffrey Radice and came about with much local support and funding (including a grant from Austin Film Society), so it was no surprise that it made its SXSW premiere to a big and welcoming crowd at the Paramount last Saturday.
The film explores the life of Dock Ellis, a Major League baseball player known for his talent as a pitcher as well as for the memorable feat of pitching a no-hitter (aka the "no no" of the title) while high on LSD. He also played at a time rife with racial tension and when illicit but quietly accepted drug use was rampant among players -- and rather than remaining a passive bystander in terms of baseball politics, Ellis was vocal and persistent in sharing his opinions.
This year's SXSW Film Festival has been chock-full of dramatic, emotional features and compelling documentaries, many of which will bring critics to tears, win awards and be remembered for stirring performances.
And then there's Stage Fright.
Stage Fright is the movie you see after one too many features about the fragility of twentysomething love, or docs about serious political issues that have you worried about ever driving again, or eating corn, or using fountain pens. Stage Fright is playing again at SXSW at 11:15 am today, and what I advise is that you stop reading this review and head down to Alamo Ritz right now and get in the line, since it's in the small theater.
It's true that at film festivals, comedies of any worth get undue praise because they are such a relief after weightier films. But Stage Fright is great goofy fun that will hold up in your living room, especially if you invite your musical-theater-loving friends to watch it with you. Writer-director Jerome Sable previously brought us the very funny short horror-musical The Legend of Beaver Dam in 2010 (I notice some of you are rushing out to your cars now and pondering downtown parking), and sustains that level of hilarity in his feature-film debut.
April 20, 2014 will be the fourth anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which caused a spill of an estimated 176 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. This horrific incident seriously altered the lives of the men who worked on the rig -- and the families of the 11 who lost their lives -- as well as the communities who once survived off jobs based on healthy waters in the Gulf. In The Great Invisible, director Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths, Be Here to Love Me) explores the aftereffects of the explosion and oil spill from multiple viewpoints.
Doug Brown, the chief mechanic for Transocean on the Deepwater Horizon (owned by Transocean, but leased by BP), gave the director some video he filmed on the rig before the disastrous night. He and another victim of the explosion, along with their wives, talk about their experience that night and their current fragile existence.
Keith Jones, father of one of the men killed in the explosion, comments on America's "insatiable thirst for gasoline" and follows the BP/Halliburton/Transocean trial to New Orleans. Brown gives these interviews intimacy, while framing them against the larger issues of America's dependence on oil and our government's participation through oil leases.
For all the haunting images in For Those in Peril, the film's most haunting moment isn't a visual, but a song sung by a grieving woman.
The song is "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," an achingly beautiful love song that sounds achingly sad in the movie. The singer is Cathy (Kate Dickie), a weary mother who has lost a son and fears she may lose another. What should be a good time singing karaoke in a pub turns bitter when Cathy is overcome with emotion and can't finish the song. It's a devastating scene in For Those in Peril, a film full of devastating scenes.
Cathy's son Michael (Jordan Young) died along with four crewmates in a tragic fishing boat accident. The sole survivor is Michael's younger brother, Aaron (George MacKay), who suffers crippling survivor's guilt. He gets no sympathy from the residents of the tiny Scottish fishing village where he lives; in a culture steeped in seafaring folklore and superstition, they blame Aaron for the accident, consider his presence bad luck and ostracize him with unbearable cruelty.
-- James Hand in Thank You a Lot, when asked what makes a good songwriter
In a single word, the fictional musician James Hand -- played by the real musician James Hand -- sums up a central theme of Thank You a Lot.
The poignant and perceptive film by Austin filmmaker Matt Muir explores many forms of failure: in parenthood, family relationships and artistic fulfillment. But it's also a hopeful film about redemption.
At the center of Thank You a Lot is Jack Hand (Blake DeLong), a bottom-feeding hustler and music manager whose only remaining clients are the hapless indie rock band The Wintermen and struggling hip-hop artist Desmond D (Jeffery Da'Shade Johnson). Jack spends his days trolling Austin's music scene for any deal he can work to his advantage; petty fraud and extortion are his stock in trade, and it's obvious his ethical compass broke long ago.
Eight years after Zack Snyder revived the sword-and-sandal subgenre and inspired millions of men to revisit the gym with his adaptation of Frank Miller's 300, he has scripted a return to ancient Greece. Directed by Noam Murro (Smart People), the movie 300: Rise of an Empire is a self-indulgent video game fantasy at best.
The film opens with a recap of the events of 300 and an introduction to Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the new lead, who's head of the Greek army. The action proceeds to explain how Themistokles is not just the hero who led the Greeks to victory over Xerxes, but was himself responsible for the enmity held by Xerxes toward the Greeks.
Artemisia (Eva Green) is introduced as the leader of Xerxes' forces, and the two commence with a series of battles consisting of ships crashing into each other as warriors fight to the death on top of the sinking wrecks.
Here are the rules of Greek vs. Persian combat, as gleaned from 300: Rise of an Empire:
- Rule 1: Like a friendly game of football, bad guys wear shirts, good guys are skins.
- Rule 2: Every blow of every sword in every battle must be repeated in videogame style slo-mo.
- Rule 3: Every scene with any of the Greek army present must have floating sparks constantly distracting from the action on the camera, as if from 10,000 campfires, even when the entire army is climbing wet out of the Mediterranean.
- Rule 4: If it digitally bleeds, it digitally leads.
- Rule 5: Nobody important dies without an extended death scene in which they deliver a monologue. Everyone else dies immediately upon the slightest injury.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax) has worked with Liam Neeson previously on the movie Unknown, but there is another clear reason Neeson was cast for the role of alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks. The actor has the talent and star power to elevate an otherwise unremarkable, movie-of-the-week script like Non-Stop into a moneymaker with wings.
The story, penned by a team whose credits include TV's Big Brother and WWE/WrestleMania, lands Neeson in the role of Bill Marks, an air marshal on a transatlantic flight. He's confronted with text messages from an anonymous villain who promises to kill someone on the flight unless the exorbitant sum of $150 million is wired into an account within an unlikely time limit of 20 minutes. With the clock ticking and no clues to help him, he must reveal the hijacker even as the villain's complex plan unfolds to frame him for the deed.
The ensuing tense whodunit occupies the audience with guessing games, attempting to lead them astray with characters that play on ethnic stereotypes and dirty looks as Marks and his allies Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) and Nancy (Michelle Dockery) attempt to expose the culprit.
As the flight's body count increases, so does Marks' level of stress, until Neeson is enraged, throwing passengers around like rag dolls and progressing only in cementing his image as a hijacker, already being painted in the media on the ground.
Non-Stop is best enjoyed by those who don't pick apart a script and can allow themselves to be caught up in the tense situation. Collet-Serra has a few tricks to keep the pace moving, including some impressive hand-to-hand choreography within the confines of the plane's lavatory. These tricks make for an enjoyable film, in spite of the descent into monologues as the clock is ticking and swift loss of direction when the hijacker is finally revealed.
Earlier this week, a law was signed by the president of Uganda that makes homosexuality an offense punishable with life imprisonment. While this legislation is being called reprehensible by human rights advocates around the world, many Ugandan politicians and citizens stand adamantly by it, holding fast to Christian-based beliefs that God-approved, male-female relationships are right and everything else is wrong.
How did such an anti-gay climate -- one that often results in acts of violence committed against both open and suspected homosexuals and their allies -- come about in this small East African nation in the first place? This is the complex and important question that God Loves Uganda attempts to answer.
Director Roger Ross Williams interviews several observers and activists from both sides of Uganda’s culture wars but largely focuses on the efforts and effects of missionary workers from Kansas City. Part of a megachurch operation known as the International House of Prayer (IHOP), these mostly white and very passionate "soldiers of God" have set their sights on Uganda in particular as a place that needs their spiritual attention.
The Iron Giant may not have been a box-office success upon its original 1999 release, but the animated film based in 1957 Maine has come to be loved and appreciated by many in the years since. The quirky, heartbreaking sci-fi tale pairs the beauty of its hand-drawn animation with a powerful message.
Hogarth (Eli Marienthal, American Pie) is a young boy in fictional coastal town Rockwell (presumably named after this Rockwell) who stumbles upon a ginormous alien machine one night. Hogarth befriends the giant, who has lost most of his memory, and attempts to pass knowledge on to the larger being. Harry Connick, Jr. figures into the voice cast as a hipster scrap metal collector/artist who supervises some of Hogarth and the giant's interactions.
Meanwhile, Hogarth's widowed mom Annie (Jennifer Aniston) rents out a room to government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald, Thelma & Louise), sent to the town after reports of metal monsters and strange happenings make their way to Washington. As Hogarth tries to teach the giant that he can choose to be what he wants (instead of what the machine may have been designed for), Mansley is determined to prove the dangerous existence of the imposing metal figure.