Movies on DVD

Lost in the Awards Rush: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

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"Lost in the Awards Rush" is a new weekly series Slackerwood is running during the awards season, to suggest lesser-known but excellent alternatives to popular frontrunners for big movie awards.

I once heard Julianne Moore reveal in an interview that in selecting projects, she finds herself naturally drawn to playing weak and damaged characters. If you stop and think about it, that really isn't surprising given how much emotional exploration it gives an actress, and with as impeccable a career as she's had, clearly this preference has served Moore well. It's with a slight irony then that she has been pegged as the frontrunner of this year's Best Actress Oscar race for Still Alice (2014), in which she plays a linguistics professor diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It is one of Moore's bravest and most resilient characters as well as her strongest role to date.

Still Alice may feature Moore playing against type in a sense by having her portray a character overcoming one of life's greatest obstacles, but this is certainly not her first time playing a woman like Alice. The actress's compelling and almost magical turn as a midwestern housewife in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005) features Moore playing a woman of strength and determination in what may be her finest performance.

Lost in the Awards Rush: The Paper

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"Lost in the Awards Rush" is a weekly series Slackerwood is running during the awards season, to suggest lesser-known but excellent alternatives to popular frontrunners for big movie awards.

Birdman (2014) has certainly been the most breakthrough of indies this past awards season. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's tale of a former action movie star (Michael Keaton) whose artistic comeback is marred by a variety of personal and professional crises (much of it courtesy of a pitch-perfect ensemble that includes Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts), has wowed virtually every major critic since its release. The praise has carried Birdman from offbeat indie to the most Oscar-nominated release of 2014 (Mike's review).

At the center of Birdman's acclaim is a magnificent and mesmerizing performance from its leading man. Having had a somewhat spotty filmography over the past decade or so, Keaton has landed a role most actors only dream of. His Riggan is a man struggling to overcome his movie past in an effort to amaze the theater world with his genuine talent. Truth be told, it's a role that Keaton could pull off, due to both his own past cinematic history and the seemingly effortless commitment he brings to every character.

After watching Birdman, I immediately thought of another Keaton-led film made 20 years earlier, The Paper (1994). Keaton re-teamed with his Gung Ho (1986) director Ron Howard for this look at the fast-paced world of tabloid journalism. Like Birdman, The Paper is set in New York, has a real-time feel, an unconventional brand of comedy and features Keaton leading a top-notch ensemble of Oscar winners and nominees including Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei, Randy Quaid and Robert Duvall.

Lost in the Awards Rush: Nine

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"Lost in the Awards Rush" is a new weekly series Slackerwood is running during the awards season, to suggest lesser-known but excellent alternatives to popular frontrunners for big movie awards.

Upon its Broadway debut in 1987, Into the Woods was praised as an innovative, dark, bold and musically astounding work that, to this day, remains unequaled. Naturally, a movie version had to follow of this re-imagining of classic fairy tales and what happens after "happily ever after." Though there were plans for a Rob Reiner-directed movie adaptation featuring Cher, Goldie Hawn, Elijah Wood and Robin Williams in the early '90s, that sadly fell apart -- the notion of bringing a project so well regarded and towering in both story and scope seemed virtually impossible.

Enter Rob Marshall, who successfully brought Chicago (2002) (another seemingly un-adaptable Broadway sensation) to the screen and had set out to work similar wonders with what was possibly the most daunting project of his career. Though there were some gripes by theater purists concerning changes that made the story more Disney-esque, Into the Woods proved a smash hit with critics and audiences, while earning Oscar nominations for the film's costumes, production design and supporting actress Meryl Streep.

The film added much-needed luster to Marshall's movie musical resume when recalling his lavishly mounted yet unfairly dismissed adaptation of the Broadway musical Nine (2009). Nine follows celebrated Italian film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he prepares to shoot his eagerly awaited ninth film. However, Guido finds himself in a creative and personal crisis, which prevents him from creating the grandiose masterpiece everyone is expecting. At the heart of Guido's turmoil are the frustrating relationships he has with various women in his life including his wife (Marion Cotillard), mistress (Penelope Cruz), mother (Sophia Loren), muse (Nicole Kidman), costume designer (Judi Dench), an American journalist (Kate Hudson) and a scandalous woman from his childhood (Fergie).

Lost in the Awards Rush: Hollywoodland

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"Lost in the Awards Rush" is a new weekly series Slackerwood is running during the awards season, to suggest lesser-known but excellent alternatives to popular frontrunners for big movie awards.

From the instant the first trailer debuted this summer, there was never any doubt that David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestselling mystery novel Gone Girl would be one of the year's breakout movies. With Fincher at the wheel, Flynn's gripping tale of a missing suburban wife (Rosamund Pike) and her accused husband (Ben Affleck) was exquisitely transferred to the silver screen and resulted in huge box-office receipts as well as critical praise for Fincher, Flynn, producer Reese Witherspoon and Pike (who also collected an Oscar nomination).

While Gone Girl finally provided Pike the perfect showcase for her continuously untapped talents, it seemed a shame that her brilliant work overshadowed Affleck's quietly intense turn as a man slowly losing his already shaky hold on reality. Affleck's first-rate work in Gone Girl ranks close to what some might consider his best and certainly most acclaimed performance to date: that of late actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland (2006).

Lost in the Awards Rush: Grand Piano

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"Lost in the Awards Rush" is a new weekly series Slackerwood is running during the awards season, to suggest lesser-known but excellent alternatives to popular frontrunners for big movie awards.

Whiplash's journey to the big screen is the kind of stuff indie dreams are made of. From a short at Sundance to one of the most acclaimed films of 2014, writer/director Damien Chazelle's passion project about a young drummer (Miles Teller) at a prestigious music academy and his tyrannical instructor (J.K. Simmons, in a career best performance) who pushes him beyond all limits, has been hailed by critics' groups everywhere.

In the rush to praise the near-perfection that is Whiplash, its easy to forget Chazelle's script for the taut and stunning thriller Grand Piano (2013), which was released earlier this year and screened at Fantastic Fest 2013 (Jette's review). Directed by Eugenio Mira from Chazelle's original screenplay, Grand Piano stars Elijah Wood as Tom Selznick, a once-revered concert pianist who entered semi-retirement after a crippling bout with stage fright. Shortly after beginning his comeback concert, Tom discovers a note on his sheet music stating that unless he gives a flawless performance, the note's author (John Cusack) will shoot him.

Holiday Favorites 2014: Jennifer Harlow and Mark Reeb Head for 'Home' and 'Rent'

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Still from Rent (2005)

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 Holiday Favorites are from a couple active in the Austin film community. Filmmaker Jennifer Harlow's most recent movie, the feature The Sideways Light (my review, my interview), premiered at the Austin Film Festival in October. Her husband, actor Mark Reeb, has appeared in a number of local films, including The Overbrook Brothers, Eve of Understanding and the short Happy Voodoo ... as well as The Sideways Light.

From Jennifer Harlow:

There are lots of movies I watch every year at Christmas: Love Actually, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harold and Kumar. Here I make my case for Christopher Columbus's Rent as the best Christmas movie ever, or "Jesse L. Martin Jesse L. Martin Jesse L. Martin."

"December 24, 9 pm, Eastern Standard Time. From here on in, I shoot without a script." Thus begins the story of Mark, Roger, Mimi, Maureen, Joanne, Tom (Jesse L. Martin!!!) and Angel. These friends and lovers, artists all, are trying to survive in New York's East Village in the face of drug addiction, AIDS and poverty. They struggle with being an artist versus selling out, lack of inspiration, and fear of attachment, loss and death. Their mantra at a support group meeting has long been a favorite quote.

Our Holiday Favorites 2014: 'The Holiday' Cheers Up Elizabeth

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Jack Black, Eli Wallach and Kate Winslet in The Holiday

Welcome back to Slackerwood's annual Holiday Favorites series. Over the next month or so, we'll talk about our favorite movies to watch in the winter holiday season, and ask various friends in the film community to share their favorites with us too. 

When actor Eli Wallach died earlier this year, I immediately thought of his work in Nancy Meyers' The Holiday. Certainly he appeared in more notable pictures, but The Holiday is near and dear to my heart (as is How to Steal a Million, in which he also appears). A romantic comedy only vaguely related to end-of-the-year festivities, the "Holiday" here represents the short breaks Brit Iris (Kate Winslet) and American Amanda (Cameron Diaz) take from their regular schedules as they trade homes for a couple weeks.

Wallach plays an endearing remnant from Classic Hollywood, the kind of old codger who will namedrop Cary Grant at the same time as he describes what a "meet cute" is. I'm not one to gloss over the deficiencies of the studio system, but as his character of Arthur serves as a way for Iris to finally get some "gumption," I can appreciate his role here. Jack Black and Jude Law (in glasses!) are the love interests for our two leading ladies.

The Stars at Night: Three on a Match

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Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak in Three on a Match

Fearless editor Jette has indulged my love for classic film by allowing me to look into older movies which have Texas connections -- mostly through the people involved in making them. We'll call this new column The Stars at Night (thanks to my sister for the title idea). For my first selection, I chose a Joan Blondell film. Blondell's family lived in Texas during her teenage years -- she was even crowned Miss Dallas once upon a time.

The beautiful blonde with big eyes and a wry delivery tended to be placed in supporting roles during the half-century of her career. I hoped that with her top credit in 1932's Three on a Match, Blondell would have a larger role here... but no such luck. The melodrama includes such notables as Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, along with Blondell, in the cast. However, it is early enough in their careers that they are all stuck in side roles.

Blondell plays actress Mary, introduced as "not a bad girl ... just not serious enough." Davis is secretary Ruth, and Ann Dvorak overacts as wealthy wife Vivian. Three on a Match speedily runs us through their days together in primary school up through the current year. Montages of obscure news events and headlines are shown between segments to set the year. Giving the screenwriters some credit: Film was still in its early days in 1932, so it's not as if they knew a better way to show the passage of time. Or maybe they just loved the idea of montages. Director Mervyn LeRoy shot five other movies that year (including the much better-known I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang), so it's doubtful he had much extra attention to give Three on a Match.

Have a Very Texas Horror Movie Night This Halloween

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For decades, the vast and beautiful land of Texas has been used as the backdrop for dozens of feature films, spawning beloved classics from virtually every genre. Yet when it comes to horror, it seems that the one title most associated with the state remains Tobe Hooper's masterful The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). A great film which, without question, will live on, Chainsaw was one of the first instances which successfully portrayed the wide-open spaces of Texas as potential landscape of sheer terror.

In the years following the film's impact, a variety of features -- most notably a number of Chain Saw sequels/remakes -- have continued to paint Texas as a rich setting for some truly inventive and fright-filled tales. In time for Halloween, and in celebration of the Texas-set 2014 remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown (currently in limited release and on VOD), here are a few titles that have, in their own way, given a chilling new face to the Lone Star State. Put together your own Texas-themed horror night sometime soon with these movies.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Shot and released two years after Chain Saw, 1976's The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a retelling of a true story that had plagued a small Texas town in post-war America. In the small community of Texarkana, a hooded killer known as the Phantom stalks and kills various citizens in unpredictable ways while continuously eluding authorities. Shot in the almost documentary-like style common with independent films of the decade, The Town That Dreaded Sundown was one of the first horror films closely based on true events; a fact the film relishes with matter-of-fact narration. That, combined with the film's open ending, a random cast that includes Ben Johnson and Dawn Wells, and a killer whose mere still presence in front of the camera gives off instant chills, made the movie an instant event for horror fans.

Lone Star Cinema: Giant

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Giant

A poster for Giant billed the iconic Texas film as The GIANT of Them All.

The poster hardly exaggerated. Running more than three hours, starring three of Hollywood's biggest stars of the era, spanning more than two decades and set against the vastness of a cattle ranch, Giant seemed as big as Texas itself when it was released in 1956.

To the film's legions of fans and many critics, Giant is still a giant. No other film captures the mythical Texas -- if not the real one -- quite like George Stevens' epic story. Countless films have been made here, but with its swaggering view of life in the Lone Star State, Giant may be the most Texan (again, in the completely mythical sense) of all.

Based on a 1952 novel by prolific novelist and playwright Edna Ferber, Giant is the story of the Benedict family, owners of a 595,000-acre West Texas cattle ranch. The film opens in the early 1920s, when Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson) travels to Maryland to buy a prized stud horse. He meets the horse owner's daughter, socialite Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), and the two marry after a whirlwind romance.

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