New Releases

Review: Cuban Fury

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Cuban Fury posterWhat better way to charm a lady than to display your dance moves?

Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) leads the cast in British dance-comedy Cuban Fury as Bruce, a middle-management type in a mechanical design office. His boss Drew, played quite creepily by Chris O'Dowd (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids), constantly picks on him and won't stop with the fat jokes (seriously, enough with the fat jokes). Both men are excited by the entrance to the company of American executive Julia (Rashida Jones, Parks and Recreation, Celeste and Jesse Forever).

Bruce has a secret: He and his sister were once young Latin-dance superstars in their region, until an attack by bullies led him to put up his dancing shoes. To impress Julia, whom he spies taking salsa lessons, Bruce turns to his former dance coach Ron (Ian McShane, Deadwood) for aid. Bruce also gets help and advice from his bartender sister (Olivia Colman, Hot Fuzz, Broadchurch) and new dancing pal Bejan (Keyvam Novak, Four Lions, Syriana).

The plot is fairly predictable, with a few dance-offs thrown in. The choreography by Litza Bixler (Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Shaun of the Dead) is fast-paced and fun to watch. The dance battle between Bruce and Drew looks like it took some serious preparation. 

The soundtrack is another of the better-executed facets of Cuban Fury, with Tito Puente classics and more modern Latin pop scoring the action. However, the bordering-on-sexual-harassment humor (along with the aforementioned proliferation of fat jokes) from O'Dowd's character was enough to make me grimace in my seat. 

Review: Transcendence

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Wally Pfister has spent almost fifteen years as Christopher Nolan's go-to cinematographer. From Memento to The Dark Knight Rises, he's been behind the camera capturing incredible action-packed movies. For his directorial debut he chose a cyberthriller and packed it with terrific actors, even getting Nolan to serve as an executive producer. This is all quite an impressive pedigree for a first-time director, but it's also why the finished project, the movie Transcendence, feels so disappointing. 

The story begins in the not-too-distant future with Max Waters (Paul Bettany) wandering around the chaotic streets of Berkeley, California. We learn there is no power and the phones are down thanks to an "unavoidable collision" of mankind and technology. After spending just a few moments in this dystopia, we flash back five years to try and understand why. Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play Will and Evelyn Caster, a research team and loving couple who specialize in artifiical intelligence. 

A series of deadly lab attacks happens across the country while the Casters are in the midst of giving a big donor presentation called "Evolve The Future." The FBI blames the actions on an organization called "R.I.F.T." (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a group of hackers and activists who believe that artificial intelligence is a threat to humanity.

Cillian Murphy (Scarecrow from The Dark Knight Rises) plays the main FBI agent who meets up at the Casters' lab with fellow researcher Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). He's the only survivor of their lab's attack because he neglected to eat a piece of poisoned birthday cake that was placed on his desk while he was deep in thought. They all introduce the FBI agent to PINN, a super-intelligent machine that basically operates like Siri on steroids. 

Review: Joe

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Joe posterFilmmaker David Gordon Green has shot two films in Central Texas now (well, three, but only two are out yet), and he gets it. He really does. For both Prince Avalanche and now Joe, he took stories that could be set anywhere and ground them in local rural settings, with characters played by residents who weren't previously professional actors. The most affecting scene in Prince Avalanche was the one in the ruins with Joyce Payne.

In Joe, I felt like I could drive 30 miles and find the unnamed town in which the film was set, with all its characters intact. In such a setting, the lead actors fit in and feel like characters, not stars. Even Nicolas Cage

Cage plays the title character, whose job is leading a team of laborers to clear a forest for development -- hacking at trees with axes that contain poisonous liquids. He's approached by Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager in a family of drifters squatting in an abandoned shack. Gary wants to join Joe's work gang, needing money to help his family, because his perpetually drunk-and-enraged father (Gary Poulter) can't do it.

It's a simple story when I lay it out that way, but the story isn't the point here, it's the characters and the way they reveal themselves as the movie progresses, especially Joe. He's oddly passive at times, letting matters run their course in their own way. And yet some people and things affect him like dropping a match in gasoline. Don't even ask about the dog in the whorehouse. (That's a sentence I never expected to write.)

For someone who's seen too many hysterically overdone performances from Cage, his work as Joe is amazing, reminding us that when he's well directed in a well-written role, he's a marvel. He manages to portray a man keeping his passions under wraps and even when he does let loose, it's in a way that isn't histrionic. He doesn't dominate the film, either -- Sheridan holds up against him perfectly in their scenes together. But even in scenes with his work gang, or in a small grocery, the other characters get to shine.

Chatting with Nicolas Cage, David Gordon Green and the 'Joe' Cast

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Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, and David Gordon Green of 'Joe'

After a series of premieres across the country including SXSW and Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), Joe opens today in Austin at the Violet Crown Cinema and Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter. Based on the novel by Larry Brown, this dark drama reveals the raw and often brutal nature of an impoverished family and what happens when a damaged man becomes involved in the family drama.

The leads of Joe are veteran star Nicolas Cage in the title role and Texas' up-and-coming young actor Tye Sheridan (Tree of Life, Mud) as Gary. Cage, Sheridan and Austin-based director David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche) spoke to members of the press at a conference during SXSW last month. I also spoke with several cast members at the recent DIFF premiere.

Green said he was attracted to the script for Joe because it struck him as "a great contemporary western, a genre that I’ve always been drawn to." He was already familiar with Brown's novel, and had even worked on a documentary about the author.

Review: Nymphomaniac: Vol. II

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Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2

My review of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I can be found here. Both volumes are now playing locally at the Violet Crown Cinema and are also available to rent through cable & digital VOD providers, including iTunes. 

While the first installment of Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac focused on Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) graphically retelling the stories of her sexual history as a young woman to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), Nymphomaniac: Vol. II shifts to her adulthood. She's on an endless quest to recreate the enormity of feeling from a spontaneous orgasm she once experienced as a pre-teen, but as the story picks back up, we're at a stage where she basically has lost all sexual desire and, even worse, any pleasure from having sex. Joe has gone numb and can no longer have an orgasm, a loss that nearly destroys her ability to function. She goes on a quest to "rehabilitate her sexuality" and finds that her desires run much darker than she'd ever realized. 

By now she has married Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and they have a son. Her maternal instinct is strong, but her instatiable carnal needs are stronger. Jerome encourages her to take lovers, but she's not particularly interested in a traditional affair. She begins to see K (Jamie Bell) and enters into a deeply disturbing BDSM relationship with him where she gets off by being punched in the face and beaten with a leather riding crop while being tied down to a couch. There were a few moments during these scenes that made me flinch and much like Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, there will be some audience members who cannot abide the sexual violence.

Review: Le Week-End

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le weekend posterPart romantic caper-comedy, part brutal exploration of a 30-year marriage, Le Week-End uses an endearing sense of mischief to balance life's satisfying highs and crushing lows.

The film stars Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent as Meg and Nick, a British couple celebrating their anniversary in Paris, the site of their honeymoon decades earlier. Though their children are now adults and they should be approaching those golden years of retirement and relaxation, both are wrecked with uncertainty and worry about money, aging and who they are -- in their own eyes and in the eyes of the other. 

Nick has grown clingy around Meg and fears being alone. He's also been keeping a secret from her about the state of his career and seems to be on the verge of a full-on existential crisis. Not too far off, Meg is filled with dissatisfaction but doesn't know what to do to make herself happy. They are quite the pair of overthinkers, and it's clear that taking a weekend out of town together is a risky maneuver unlikely to solve anything. 

Where traditional romantic comedies tend to gloss over the tougher parts of long-term relationships (if they depict them at all), Le Week-End faces the sad, awkward stuff head-on. But while there are several intense Celine and Jesse moments between Nick and Meg, these sometimes melancholy lovers are often pretty Frances Ha-ish, too. They argue, sure, but they're also comfortably playful, affectionate and adorably silly with each other.  

Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, The Mother) shows off the gorgeous and charming parts of Paris but hints at the dirty little secret of typical Hollywood movies: Real people can't actually afford the romantic experience so often depicted onscreen. If Nick and Meg want to stay in a hotel with a stellar view, shop for fine clothes and eat incredible meals, frugal realism must be casually ignored and their material adventures will need to be charged on the credit card. 

Review: Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

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NymphomaniacPoster

Lars Von Trier's sexually explicit epic has been edited into two different versions. There is a 4-hour "international" version (which is what Magnolia is currently releasing here in the U.S.), split into two halves for distribution around the world. A 5.5-hour "hardcore" version contains even more exposition and explicit footage. While it's hard to imagine that the hardcore version would ever see the light of day in America, Magnolia has stated that they'll eventually release it domestically, although that may be exclusive to home video.

Despite its occasionally explicit nature, anybody who is familiar with Von Trier's work will not be surprised to know that the film is not at all sexy. If Nymphomaniac had been submitted for a rating, the movie would certainly have earned an NC-17, but I suspect that if two or three brief shots of penetration and/or oral sex had been removed that it could have earned an R. I was not shocked in the least, even when I occasionally felt that I was being prodded to be shocked. 

For most audiences, even the 4-hour version will push boundaries too far, but perhaps it is a little more palatable when the story is split up into two installments. Both sections are available to rent on VOD now, but if you want to see what the fuss is all about on the big screen, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is hitting Austin this weekend. It's difficult to asses Von Trier's work when you've only seen half of it, but Volume I is well acted and highly compelling.

Review: Teenage

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still from Teenage

Filmmaker Matt Wolf's Teenage, a glossy video collage about the growth of youth culture in the early to mid-20th century, is inspired by author Jon Savage's Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, 1875-1945.  Austin Film Society hosted a screening of the film (with Wolf in attendance) last August, but Teenage returns to Austin this weekend for a theatrical run.

Opening in 1904, scenes of children at factories are shown as narrators explain how child-labor laws led to further schooling for kids. Jena Malone (Contact, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Ben Whishaw (Bright Star, Skyfall) are two of the four voices who speak from a specific point of view.

Amid the vintage photos and footage are live-action sequences -- with color adjustments and added graininess to blend in with the older stock -- used to illustrate singular stories representing significant movements. These silent scenes, scored with ambient music and narrated by the four speakers, make Teenage appear less revolutionary and more like something you might find on PBS's American Experience. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but it’s not as original a project as the movie wants to be.

Review: Tim's Vermeer

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 Tim's Vermeer

I'm somewhat embarrased to admit that I never took an art history course in college. My knowledge and awareness of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer even more embarrasingly begins and ends with Scarlett Johansson portraying the young woman who is the subject of Vermeer's painting in Girl with a Pearl Earring. I felt slightly more knowledgable after watching the documentary Tim's Vermeer, directed by Teller of the comedy/illusionist duo Penn and Teller, which opens in Austin today.

If you take a look at Vermeer's work, it's easy to be struck by how realistic his paintings are. Hundreds of years before photographs, he captures light and his subjects in a way that leaps off the canvas almost as if it's a video image. That's how Tim Jenison sees these classic paintings and, over the years, it has started to become a bit of an obsession. Tim is an internet streaming video pioneer and inventor who lives down the road in San Antonio. He founded a company called NewTek that has developed extensive tools for 3D modeling and animation. That may partially explain his eye for detail, but Tim's Vermeer  shows us just how deep his curiosity about Vermeer's painting technique runs. 

Review: Divergent

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DivergentIn a dystopian future ruled by an authoritarian government, a young female protagonist with special skills must make personal sacrifices and overcome incredible odds in order to protect her family. That may sound like a plot synopsis for The Hunger Games, but it is equally applicable to this week's release from director Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist). Based on the young adult novel by Veronica Roth, the movie Divergent was scripted by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones).

Set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, the society of Divergent is organized into five factions who each perform their own important functions, such as labor, government and military, based on personality type. On the eve of adulthood, teens are given an aptitude test to help them determine which faction will be the best fit for them, and they must then choose their permanent assignment.

Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) stars as Beatrice "Tris" Prior, who learns when she takes her test that she is a rare Divergent, someone who is equally suited to more than one faction, with the gift of creative thought -- and therefore a threat to the established regime. Forced to hide this knowledge as exposure would mean certain death, Tris must choose her faction and do her best to avoid making waves, a task that appears impossible when technology is in use that can display one's very thoughts on screen.

Tris receives help from Four (Theo James), assigned to train new members of the faction. Kate Winslet stars as Jeanine Matthews, the mysterious and dangerous figure who more than anything wants to see Divergents captured and killed.

Even with the formulaic setup I found myself somewhat caught up in the story, which consists largely of Tris's struggles to complete training for her chosen faction, Dauntless, the fearless military protectors of the city. These sequences take the audience on a tour of striking visuals through the ruins of Chicago, including training grounds in an abandoned amusement park, a great wall and fence hundreds of feet high that surround the city (though we never see the reason for the fence), and into the stone quarry where the Dauntless make their home.

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