Reviews

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

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<em />Mad Max: Fury RoadThe bar is set this week for top action flick of the summer, and Mad Max: Fury Road is the one to beat. It has been an improbable 30 years since the last entry in the Mad Max series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but director George Miller returns with a joyride so big, so incredibly over-the-top, it's got the potential to redefine what we expect in an action film.

Miller immerses us in the post-apocalyptic world he established through the previous films, which we can now see has never stopped devolving and increasing in madness, chaos and destruction as the last vestiges of life continue to die off. The title "Mad Max" in fact is something of a misnomer, as Max Rockatansky, now played by Tom Hardy, is clearly the most sane person left in what has become the outer circle of Hell.

The world in Mad Max: Fury Road is the phenomenally stunning product of concept and art direction. The fully realized society is based on a religion devoted to its leader, who presides over warriors who feed on milk harvested from human slaves and who wish only to die in his service. Great machines powered by human feet lift vehicles from the bowels of his stronghold -- vehicles that might drive on stage at the heaviest of heavy-metal concerts, smoking frankencars pieced together, covered in skulls, with men chained to them spitting gasoline into their intakes to increase the RPMs.

Character names are just as ostentatious: Toast the Knowing, Rictus Erectus, The People Eater and The Splendid Angharad ... to name a few. Every detail of this fantasy is magnified, hyperbolized to an explosive extent. Michael Bay is no longer the director I refer to as the "best at blowing shit up."

We don't need another hero, but we get one in the bad-ass form of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). This is her story, and on Fury Road, Max is just along for the ride. There is no attempt to be subtle about the strong feminist message in the film, and that's A-OK. I would have been every bit as happy if this film had left out the Max character, and I'd love to see a set of movies in this world with Theron taking the lead.

Review: Pitch Perfect 2

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Still from Pitch Perfect 2

The Barden Bellas, with their zany vocal antics, are back.  Elizabeth Banks, who produced Pitch Perfect the first, directs the new sequel -- as well as returning to her role as a cappella commentator Gail. Pitch Perfect 2 shows the collegiate group three years after their win at nationals.

So much is packed into this two-hour musical comedy, but I'll try to break it down for you. Beca (Anna Kendrick), with dreams of being a music producer, snags an internship at a studio and doesn't tell her friends. Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) ruins a Bella performance at Lincoln Center and the group's performing duties as current national titleholders are stripped away. New freshman/legacy Bella Emily (Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit) joins the group and they plan to compete in an international a cappella competition in Denmark.

Pitch Perfect 2 skips from situation to situation -- it's more like a longform sitcom than any other movie I've seen recently. Unfortunately, the script includes some lazy and ridiculous writing. A Latina Bella (Chrissie Fit) is relegated to stereotype, stuck with cringeworthy comments to the other girls about her brother trying to barter her for a chicken, or her likely being deported after college and coming back illegally. Besides her flipping skills, her character is basically a caricature. The limitations of the first film haven't been improved on in this regard.

HCFF Review: Mount Lawrence

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Mount Lawrence posterImagine cycling more than 6,000 miles cross-country, mending dozens of popped tires, camping out in thunderstorms, coping with unexpected injuries ... and documenting it with video cameras. Filmmaker Chandler Wild takes on the challenge in the documentary Mount Lawrence, and includes the audience in his experience in an engaging, almost intimate way. The film recently won the Best Documentary award at the Hill Country Film Festival.

Wild, a former Texan living in Brooklyn, decides to embark on this adventure to honor the memory of his dad, who loved taking his family on adventurous camping and other outdoor trips ... and eventually committed suicide. He plans to cycle from New York City through California and up to Alaska, and he has to do it within a fairly limited timeframe so the weather will be okay for travelling by the time he gets to Canada. His goal is to reach Homer, Alaska and climb an as-yet-unnamed mountain that he'll hopefully be able to officially name after his father (thus the title).

From Brooklyn, Wild starts the bicycle trek with his friend Connor Lynch, who has never tried cycling of any real distance, or outdoor living, or any of this kind of thing. While it's a rough start for Lynch, having him accompany Wild is a great entryway for the audience to empathize with the situation. Eventually they hit a rhythm as they travel west and deal with all kinds of unpredictable difficulties, as well as some truly lovely moments on the road and in places like Detroit and Yellowstone Park.

Mount Lawrence follows the obvious structure of the lengthy road trip, but Wild adds more of a personal note by framing his voiceover narration as a letter to his dad. It sounds a little stiff and forced at first, but as the documentary really gets rolling and we get to know him better, his inflections sound more natural. Music from The Bones of J.R. Bones complements the odyssey very well.

For a movie shot with GoPro cameras mounted crazily on bikes and other rough-on-the-road shooting, Mount Lawrence looks especially good on a big screen, but will carry over well to home video. The opening credits sequence, designed to look like a family vacation slideshow, is a real visual highlight. At this time, the film is touring the film-fest circuit and no distribution deals or plans have been announced ... but it's hard to imagine a documentary about an adventure of such magnitude won't make it at least to online streaming outlets soon.

Texas connections: Filmmaker Chandler Wild grew up in the Houston, Texas area.

Review: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

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I Am Big Bird posterThe documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is exactly what you'd expect it to be, if you're a Muppet fan ... and also exactly what you'd hope it would be. Tonight's Violet Crown screening is sold out, but you can watch the film via online streaming outlets such as Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.

The film is a pleasant and sometimes touching profile of Caroll Spinney, who has spent decades portraying both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street and elsewhere. It's traditionally structured, primarily by time sequence -- beginning with his childhood and early puppet and acting gigs, and heading for the present. Interviews with Spinney help form the backbone of the film -- he tells us his own history, supported by other interview from his family to Sesame Street colleagues such as Frank Oz, Joan Ganz Cooney and Norman Stiles.

Naturally I Am Big Bird includes a great deal of vintage Sesame Street and Muppet footage, starting from the days when Oscar was orange and Big Bird didn't have quite so much plumage. The footage is delightful but also occasionally poignant -- it's impossible to talk about Big Bird without mentioning the episode about Mr. Hooper's death, and it's impossible to talk about Muppet history without mentioning Jim Henson's death.

Although the structure is fairly traditional, filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker manage some excellent segues that cover a lot of ground. For example, after showing scenes from Jim Henson's memorial, Spinney and Oz discuss Steve Whitmire taking over Kermit's character, which naturally leads to addressing what will happen when Spinney retires, and introduces his Big Bird apprentice, Matt Vogel. An early sequence about the filming of Big Bird in China pays off later in the film in a way that may be predictable but is no less affecting.

HCFF Review: The Origins of Wit and Humor

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The Origins of Wit and Humor posterCharming indie film The Origins of Wit and Humor, which screened earlier this month at the Hill Country Film Festival, appears at first to be a romantic comedy, but ultimately leans heavily on the comedy, as hinted in the title. In fact, you could argue that this movie is a romantic comedy in which humor portrays the femme fatale the protagonist pursues -- the storyline chronicles the repercussions of his entanglements with this demanding love interest.

Les (Joe Hursley) is a comedy writer who's completely devastated when seemingly out of nowhere, his longtime girlfriend moves out. He can't write, he can't function, he has no idea how to approach women, despite encouragement from his best friend Pops (Steve Lemme). On a whim, Les sends off a mail-order form from the back of an old book (with the same title as the film) and receives a "potion" that will allegedly make him irresistably funny to all women. And the big problem is that unlike "X-ray specs" and the Charles Atlas program, the potion turns out to work.

The Origins of Wit and Humor has a tendency to favor broad comedy over character and plot consistency, when given the choice, with occasional misfires. For example, the scene where Les seeks out the source of the potion he has taken is just silly and feels forced. On the other hand, a sequence that pays tribute to silent movies didn't have much tie-in to the plot but it's so funny, it hardly matters.

Hursley has a talent for hilariously appropriate facial expressions that don't cross over into shameless mugging -- he reminded me a little of Hugh Laurie back in the Bernie Wooster years. He and Lemme together make just about any situation more humorous. The female characters don't get much to do in the movie apart from Grace McPhillips as Pops' wife, who is immune to Les's charms and also pretty amusing with her own reaction shots. She also gets a nice moment in a diner with Les -- she's probably the smartest character in the film.

Review: Welcome To Me

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Welcome To Me

In her seven seasons as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Kristen Wiig became known for an array of bizarre recurring characters and for taking on difficult and highly memorable impressions (Bjork, Kathie Lee Gifford and Suze Orman spring immediately to mind). She's done her fair share of comedic film work, but in the last few years has really found her niche in indie dramadies. With The Skeleton Twins and Hateship Loveship under her belt, Wiig now appears in her strongest performance to date in Welcome to Me as Alice Klieg, a woman with borderline personality disorder. 

The concept works because it is too absurd to be true. Essentially, it begins with the fact that Alice has a complicated relationship with television. It has comforted, cared and educated her over the years. Despite her mental issues, she's stopped taking her prescribed medications and relies on piles of VHS tapes to calm her nerves. She leaves the television on in her apartment at all times, telling a visitor to her home that it hasn't been turned off in 11 years. Before she can go out into the world, Alice will sit down and pop in an old Oprah episode into the VCR, reciting every line of dialogue. To her, these Oprah episodes have been a better guide for living her life than the time spent with her therapist (Tim Robbins). Spontaneity is not Alice's specialty, often expressing her feelings in "prepared statements" handwritten in advance to spare her from getting too emotional in the heat of the moment.

One night, Alice turns on the California Lottery and matches the numbers to her recently purchased ticket to discover that she has won a massive $86 million dollar jackpot. Without the checks and balances of proper care for her illness, her newfound wealth enables her to invest in the lifelong dream of having her own talk show. She teams up with New Vibrant Studios, home to a struggling local home-shopping network owned by brothers Rich (James Marsden) and Gabe (Wes Bentley) and offers to pay upfront to produce her show, which quickly goes from a weekly program (entitled Welcome To Me, with increasingly more complex opening title sequences as the show goes on) to a daily one. 

HCFF Review: Night Owls

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Night Owls

An ambitious young man finds himself tending to his boss's girlfriend -- his married boss's secret girlfriend -- who's in despair. It sounds like the middle of The Apartment, but it's actually the focus of Night Owls, a feature that premiered at SXSW and just screened at the Hill Country Film Festival, where it won the Cinema Dulce Best of Fest award. The indie owes a large debt to the 1960 Billy Wilder film without feeling like a remake or tribute.

The movie opens with Madeline (Rosa Salazar) taking Kevin (Adam Pally) home for a boozy one-night stand ... or so Kevin thinks. It's only after their brief liaison that Kevin, about to slip out of the house, realizes in stages that a) it's not her house, it belongs to his boss; b) Madeline's been involved with his boss in some way; and c) she's out cold in the bathroom after overdosing on something unknown.

Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

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clouds of sils mariaYou may have already heard a few things about Clouds of Sils Maria -- including that Kristen Stewart achieved the nearly impossible by winning a major French acting award in a French movie playing opposite the French goddess (emphasis mine) Juliette Binoche

This is a fine starting point, but there is so much more (so much more) to talk about here. Director Olivier Assayas has made a film that explores the kind of relationship not usually depicted onscreen (and rarely with such grace and intelligence), while here and there upending traditional narrative and editorial techniques to great effect. 

Binoche is the star of the film, meaning she has more screen time than anyone and also plays a film star named Maria Enders. Maria is enjoying artistic success even as the inevitability of middle age -- terrifying for an actress -- starts to make its presence known.

Maria first finds fame when she plays a young, self-assured woman who seduces and destroys an older woman (who is also her boss and lover). Twenty years later, Maria has been asked to play the older character in the same play in an updated London production. This proposition challenges her heart and soul and offends her vanity but appeals to her sense of self-confidence and intellect.

She knows taking the role will be a power move. Mastering the nuances of two such different people would bring her wider fame and adoration for a little while longer, but in the wake of her recent divorce and the death of a mentor, Maria knows this exercise will be taxing, as well. 

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Avengers: Age of UltronThe day is finally here, and fans assemble for the follow-up to Marvel's 2012 Joss Whedon-directed hit movie The Avengers. This week's new release, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was also written and directed by Whedon, creator of hit TV franchises Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly.

Marvel continues to tie events in its film franchise to its TV series Agents of SHIELD, which provides a plausible reason for the group of superheroes to reunite in search of Loki's sceptre. The sceptre has fallen into dangerous hands in the wake of SHIELD's collapse, as witnessed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents of SHIELD. The recapture of that artifact leads to the creation of Ultron, a new and deadly cybernetic enemy bent on the team's destruction.

James Spader voices Ultron, and it's hard not to like the villain perhaps more than the heroes with his matter-of-fact quips and insults, always several steps ahead of the team as he descends into creepy madness.

Whedon is an expert at balancing an ensemble cast, and this is one of the largest to date with 12 major players who all get ample screentime and character development. That said, Avengers: Age of Ultron is very much made for fans and presented with the expectation that the audience will be versed in the backstories of the characters through Marvel's other movies at a minimum, if not Avengers comic-book storylines as well. Students, er, audience members, who haven't done the required reading may find themselves overwhelmed as new characters are introduced and the action jumps from place to place.

Review: Adult Beginners

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Adult Beginners posterHave you seen the indie film about the young ambitious-but-party-loving professional who has to move in with relatives after a heartbreaking business failure? Or how about the one where the estranged siblings are thrown back together and try to rebuild a strong relationship, in spite of their parents? Or maybe the movie where the single person or childless couple learn how much they've missed by not having children in their lives.

Adult Beginners retreads these all-too-familiar paths, but in such a pleasant way -- and with such an amusing cast -- that it's rarely tiresome. 

Jake (Nick Kroll) is one of those entrepreneurial types so familiar here in Austin (although he's wheeling and dealing in NYC) ready to launch The Next Big Thing. At the peak of his fabulous launch party, however, the venture collapses irretrievably, leaving him broke, unemployed and lacking any belief that he can do much of anything successfully. Jake moves in with his sister Justine (Rose Byrne) and her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale), out to their parents' old home in the suburbs, and he agrees to be their son Teddy's nanny in return for room and board.

At this point the movie shifts into predictable patterns: Jake learning how to care for a child, Jake dealing with nannies, Justine and Danny coping with having a self-centered man-child in their home, Jake and Justine rebuilding their relationship. I keep mixing up plot elements in my head with The Skeleton Twins (especially because of the pool element) and even In a World (unrelated: keep an ear out for Fred Malamed's voice in this movie too).

As with both those movies, the cast adds strength and interest to the more familiar aspects of the plot. Kroll and Byrne may not look much like siblings but they have the interaction down pat -- especially during/after Skype calls to their father and his wife. Byrne's character is probably the best-written of the bunch, with some lovely moments that push the role above the standard "exasperated but supportive wife and sister" cliche. I particularly liked a scene in a coffeehouse with a student she's mentoring. Cannavale's character is far more standard but he hits every note perfectly.