New Releases

Review: Birdman

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BirdmanAlthough Michael Keaton has stated the personality of his character Riggan Thomas is the most dissimilar to himself of any he has ever played, Birdman, it could be argued, is his JCVD. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful) and scripted by Iñárritu along with Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, it chronicles the efforts of a former Hollywood superhero to reignite the spark of his ailing career.

Hoping to regain relevance, pay homage to the hero who inspired him, and put his family life back together, Riggan Thomas is in the final days of launching a Broadway play he has written, directed, produced and stars in. Guided by an inner voice that sounds not unlike the growling baritone of Beetlejuice, Thomas confronts innumerable internal and external crises that threaten to crush the production.

Behind the scenes, his daughter (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, is intent on punishing him for being an absent father. On stage, he must deal with the antics of Mike (Edward Norton), the Broadway darling who is not only perfect for the role but will also bring legitimacy and more importantly, ticket sales to the production. Internally, he struggles with remorse, self-doubt, anger, desperation and an angry flirtation with being a drunken asshole.

So, Thomas has a completely different personality. Keaton may not bare his soul in this, but he bares nearly everything else. He and Norton spend a sizable amount of time in Birdman performing in tighty-whiteys, both for shock value and comedic effect. He doesn't stop at shedding his clothing, however, as even his hairpiece is stripped away. Layer after layer, we peek behind the stage, through the dressing room door, and beneath the clothing and pretense to explore the psyche of an A-list actor.

Movies This Week: October 17-23, 2014

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St. Vincent 

It's another busy week in area theaters, but as we start ramping up into awards season that isn't going to change too much through the end of the year. We've got a lot of new releases out this weekend along with the ninth annual Austin Polish Film Festival, which got underway yesterday at the Marchesa. The fest will screen new Polish cinema, restored classic films recommended by Martin Scorsese ... even a children's matinee of Disney's Frozen dubbed in Polish on Saturday morning. 

At Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, a 35mm print of John Carpenter's Halloween screens on Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday. If you're looking for even more vintage scares, check out Night Of The Living Dead (with a live score by Bird Peterson) on Sunday night, Monday night's Universal Horror double feature with The Mummy in 35mm paired with the alternate Spanish version of Dracula, which runs 25 minutes longer than the Tod Browning film and Girlie Night's presentation of Hocus Pocus on Tuesday.

Tonight and tomorrow, Alamo South Lamar has the annual Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival, which "shines a spotlight on films that positvely and accurately represent disability." This year the fest features award-winning short films along with Musical Chairs tonight and The Little Tin Man, an indie release that screened at the Austin Film Festival last year (Marcelena's review) on Saturday evening.

Review: Men, Women & Children

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Men, Women & Children

A better title for Men, Women & Children might be The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Internet. Another might be The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Movie.

I had hoped Jason Reitman's latest film would be up to the lofty standards of his best work, Juno and Up in the Air. But what could have been an insightful look at how the Internet has shaped our lives is instead a slight, heavy-handed and melodramatic cautionary tale about the dangers (at least from the film's point of view) that lurk online.

Shot in Austin, Men, Women & Children follows a group of teens and adults whose online activities land them in a heap of trouble. Among them are a mostly happy couple, Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Don Truby (Adam Sandler), who let their sexual boredom get the better of them; Helen finds extramarital action thanks to hookup site Ashley Madison, and Don hires an escort after perusing his son's favorite porn sites.

Meanwhile, paranoid and overprotective mom Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner) obsesses over the online activities of her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), monitoring her every text and Facebook post. (She even tracks the poor girl's whereabouts via her cell phone.) Despite her mom's spying and smothering, Brandy still manages to carry on a secret relationship with football star Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), who quits the team so he can devote more time to online role playing games.

Review: St. Vincent

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St. Vincent

By the time St. Vincent draws to a close, you'll probably feel emotionally manipulated. You will have certainly realized that you've seen this story what feels like a million times before. If you're super nitpicky, you might even be inclined to make a list of films in the same vein that you like better (About A Boy and Rushmore immediately spring to mind). Unless you are as curmudgeonly as Vincent (Bill Murray) in this motion picture, I am betting you'll still find yourself giving in to this movie no matter how hard you resist. 

As Vincent's new neighbor Maggie, Melissa McCarthy turns in a surprisingly subdued performance as a single mother struggling to keep things afloat for her her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher in an outstanding debut). Things get off to a very rocky start and they don't get much better when Oliver gets locked out of his new home on the first day of school and Maggie has to convince Vincent over the phone to babysit him until she can get off work. As the grumpiest of grumpy old men, it's not a task Vincent is well suited for, but he could use the money so he reluctantly agrees. 

Review: The Overnighters

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The Overnighters

The searing documentary The Overnighters asks a lot of hard questions. The hardest may be, "What does community mean?"

Shot in Williston, North Dakota, filmmaker Jesse Moss's documentary -- which Drafthouse Films is releasing Friday in Austin -- captures the tiny town in the midst of the current North Dakota oil boom. The boom is a blessing and a curse: The townspeople welcome the unprecedented economic boost, but have mixed feelings about the influx of thousands of oil field workers.

The main problem is housing. Most new arrivals have nowhere to live, so many sleep in their cars, trucks and RVs, parked wherever they can. Another problem is less about logistics than human nature: The workers are roughnecks in every sense of the word -- desperately poor men, often with little education, all chasing quick money and some running from their pasts. To the good and decent citizens (in the ironic sense; more on this later) of Williston, the men are the others -- a scruffy, scary and unwelcome lot. The townspeople's hospitality ends where their fear begins.

The Overnighters focuses on Rev. Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor in Williston who opens his church as temporary housing for the workers. He does so because helping thy neighbor is one of his pastoral duties, of course; he's also immensely compassionate and nonjudgmental, a man who cares deeply about the often broken men who desperately seek the church's help. Far more than just their landlord, he's their counselor and friend.

Review: Kill the Messenger

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Kill the Messenger

'Tis the season for dark dramas, and Kill the Messenger may be this year's darkest, a film all the darker because it's based on a demoralizing true story.

The titular messenger is Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a San Jose Mercury News investigative reporter who in 1996 writes a series of articles alleging a link between the CIA and Nicaraguan cocaine smugglers in the 1980s. According to Webb's Dark Alliance series, the CIA knew that huge amounts of Nicaraguan coke were sold as crack cocaine in Los Angeles, and the profits were funneled back to the Contras, CIA-backed rebel groups fighting to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

Webb does not allege that the CIA was directly involved in smuggling or selling crack. Instead, he says the agency aided the Contras by looking the other way, withholding evidence from the Justice Department and Congress, and shielding the smugglers and dealers from prosecution. Webb also alleges that the Nicaraguan cocaine sparked the crack epidemic that spread to many U.S. cities.

Review: Gone Girl

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gone girl still

This review contains vague plot spoilers.

Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl is a modern horror story about a marriage that goes dangerously, fascinatingly awry. A fast and satisfying read, the book’s smart dialogue and clever structure keep it from landing in trashy thriller territory even though the subject matter largely revolves around sex and scandal.

Flynn also wrote the screenplay for the film Gone Girl, doing an admirable job of keeping the guilty pleasure essence of the book intact while rearranging and splicing when necessary. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but she does it skillfully.

David Fincher is the well-chosen director of the film. Topics like obsession, manipulation and society’s continuous decay are right up Fincher’s alley, and his slick style and precise attention to detail are perfectly channeled into a story where every word and action carries weight and meaning. 

Review: Annabelle

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AnnabelleA number of films have been inspired by the cases of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, most notably The Amityville Horror. The most financially successful was 2013's The Conjuring, in which the couple played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga assist the Perron family (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) with the demonic presence troubling their home. That film, which made over $318 million worldwide, is bookended with the tale of another of their cases. In it, the Warrens help a young nurse dealing with the sinister presence inhabiting a doll given to her by her mother. The film closes with a scene set in the basement room where the Warrens keep demonically possessed curiosities, the doll "Annabelle" in her glass case reigning as the most evil and feared. It serves as a perfect introduction for this week's prequel, Annabelle.

I did not expect the studio heads in their mad rush to capitalize on The Conjuring's success to shit all over it, but of course, this is New Line, the company that brought us the Val Kilmer career-killing abortion The Island of Dr Moreau. They cut a $20 million budget to $5 million and replaced venerable Conjuring director James Wan with John R. Leonetti, whose hottest previous credits were Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Butterfly Effect 2. They hired an uncredited script polisher from the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street who clumsily crafted an origin story set on the other side of the country, a script full of anachronisms, with no connection to the original film other than a vague mention of the Warrens as "some couple the church works with back east." And they replaced Farmiga and Wilson with younger lookalikes.

Review: The Boxtrolls

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The BoxtrollsI am always eager to see the latest Laika release. Output is slow from the animation studio due to the time-consuming and meticulous nature of its handmade stop-motion films, but bottling magic is no easy task. There is an ineffable tone in the studio's films -- perhaps because of its complete attention to details, perhaps because of some way natural lighting works compared to digital renderings -- that instills a sense of realism.

With The Boxtrolls, Laika takes on steampunk, creating a Victorian-looking village populated by hundreds of unique, charming (and some not so very) characters. Based on the children's book by Alan Snow, Here Be Monsters, directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi bring to life Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright, aka Bran Stark from Game of Thrones) and Winnie (Elle Fanning) as they fight to save their misunderstood friends from the evil designs of wily exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley).

I found the script somewhat less engaging than Laika's previous two movies, Coraline and ParaNorman, as it felt more appropriate for a younger audience. However, the film was never boring and often uproariously funny. The town of Cheesebridge is full of puns, especially in the character names like Lord Portley-Rind or Snatcher. ("My favorite was The Briehemoth.") There is also an oddball musical number, "The Boxtrolls Song," written by Eric Idle. Kingsley's villainous Mr. Snatcher steals the show (along with the trolls), as he performs with an accent that had me thinking he was Michael Caine.

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

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A Walk Among the TombstonesLiam Neeson taking on kidnappers, that's nothing new, right? This weekend's release, A Walk Among the Tombstones, is true to form. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a detective who retired from the NYPD after being involved in a violent gunfight while under the influence. A plea for assistance from a fellow AA member involves him in a rather grisly kidnapping plot and also offers him a chance at redemption.

Writer/director Scott Frank (The Wolverine, Minority Report, Get Shorty), is responsible for some of Hollywood's biggest hits. This may not be one of them, as it attempts to re-create the formula of Neeson's Taken series. It is, however, a solid thriller that still manages a few surprises.

First is the introduction of a juvenile yet very capable sidekick. Brian "Astro" Bradley (Earth to Echo) plays TJ, a streetwise kid with a love of detective stories and knack for getting himself in trouble while turning up clues essential to Scudder's investigations. TJ never loses his cool whether confronting street thugs or the 6'4" frame of Neeson, and the young man has the beginnings of a great film career with his first three features (A remake of the 1999 Space Jam has already completed shooting.)

Speaking of shooting, another surprise in A Walk Among the Tombstones was the strong anti-gun message in such a dark and violent film. There are subtle references throughout as well as an emphatic lecture from Scudder to TJ on the subject. It seems out of place in a movie like this, though it serves the plot by providing some audience insight into Scudder's backstory.

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