New Releases

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.

Review: Ex Machina

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Ex MachinaScreenwriter Alex Garland is responsible for a number of highly regarded science-fiction screenplays including 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. With Ex Machina, which opened Friday, Garland for the first time adds directing on top of his writing credits. Ex Machina has taken the film festival circuit by storm and received accolades as a Drafthouse Recommends title. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel this movie is overrated.

Ex Machina is a richly beautiful, smart, thought-provoking work of science fiction that unfortunately suffers from a viciously sexist underlying theme. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, a charismatic cyber genius who at the age of 13, wrote the software that would eventually become Google. He invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee chosen by lottery, to spend a week at his remote estate for a kind of sick Willy Wonka-esque robot nightmare tour.

Nathan explains to Caleb that he has been brought to spend the week playing the human role in the Turing Test, a standard of artificial intelligence research in which a human and an AI interact. The AI passes the test if the human can't tell he's talking to a computer. Of course, it should be obvious already that by telling Caleb he's going to speak to an AI that Nathan has blown the parameters of the test.

But Nathan's plan is darker and unclear. He spends his mornings working out and his evenings passing out drunk with very little time in between for any real scientific research, and during ominous power outages Ava (Alicia Vikander) tells Caleb that Nathan can't be trusted. Tensions mount as Caleb is so convinced by Ava that he begins to doubt his own humanity.

So why do I call it sexist? Aside from gratuitous nudity and the fratboy lifestyle Nathan leads, the premise of this film is two men sitting in judgement of an innocent woman, deciding her fate. She lives her very brief life on a leash, completely under the control of Nathan, subject to his whims and frustrations. Caleb falls head-over-heels in love with her in the blink of an eye, and then she is presented as a manipulative stereotype, using her sexual appeal to influence him. 

Review: While We're Young

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Naomi Watts in While We're Young

While We're Young, the new film from Noah Baumbach, touches on multiple themes in its hour-and-a-half running time, some more effectively than others. From the ethics of documentary filmmaking to choosing a childless life to the habits of Brooklyn hipsters, there's something here for almost everyone -- which is likely why the comedy feels more mainstream than Baumbach's previous works.

The lead characters, married couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), direct and produce documentaries respectively.  They stumble into a friendship with free-spirited couple Jamie (Adam Driver, Frances Ha) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried, Mean Girls). The older couple is enamored of Jamie and Darby and their lifestyle. Why spend a weekend with your best friends who just had a baby when you can spend it taking hallucinagens under instruction from a shaman accompanied by Danny Kaye's "Inchworm" and Vangelis tunes?

Movies This Week: April 3-9, 2015

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3 Hearts 

This weekend, the Austin Film Society continues with "Perfect Criminals: The 70's French Noir Connection" series, and Friday night has a killer (no pun intended) double feature on tap. Alain Delon stars in Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 gangster film Le Samourai (for a one-off screening) paired with Le Cercle Rouge, another Melville classic from 1970 that also stars Delon. The latter film will screen again on Monday night and both are presented in 35mm at the Marchesa. Amanda Wilder's Approaching The Elephant is screening on Tuesday for Doc Nights and David Lynch's Blue Velvet screens in 35mm on Wednesday night as part of the "Jewels In The Wasteland" series, although this edition will only include a video introduction from Richard Linklater due to an unexpected conflict. Essential Cinema on Thursday night will feature Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire, the 1951 film based on the Tennessee Williams play that features scorching performances from Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. 

The Alamo Drafthouse Ritz begins an Orson Welles retrospective this weekend. The theater will screen Chuck Workman's 2014 documentary Magician: The Astonishing Orson Welles along with a 35mm print of Citizen Kane on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. The series continues with 1942's The Magnificent Ambersons in 35mm on Monday evening and Thursday afternoon. Just in time for Easter, they've also got a few Big Screen Classics screenings of Monty Python's Life Of Brian on Sunday and Monday. If you're looking to celebrate Rex Manning Day, Girlie Night is presenting a 20th anniversary screening of Empire Records on Wednesday. Considering the home video versions have switched over only to presenting an extended cut of the movie, this is a good chance to watch the original theatrical version again!

Alamo South Lamar is adding a few late-night screenings of Resurrection Of A Bastard this week. This graphic novel adaptation from the Netherlands was a Fantastic Fest selection from 2013 that has recently received U.S. distribution. It's also worth noting that if you're deaf or hard of hearing, South Lamar will be hosting an open captioned version of Furious 7 on Sunday afternoon. Perhaps a little more fitting for Easter Sunday, the Alamo Village has Jesus Christ Superstar and the Alamo Lakeline celebrates the day with Mel Gibson's Passion Of The Christ

Movies This Week: March 27 - April 2, 2015

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 It Follows

The Austin Film Society really knows the way to my heart. A brand new series begins this evening at the Marchesa called "Perfect Criminals: The '70s French Noir Connection" and you can buy a full series pass or grab individual tickets for the five French crime classics that AFS will be unspooling in the weeks to come. The first selection in the series is 1969's The Sicilian Clan in 35mm. Jean Gabin and Alain Delon star in this jewel heist thriller from director Henri Verneuil and it plays tonight and again on Sunday afternoon.

Also on Sunday, you've got one more chance to catch Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island Of Dr Moreau. I caught this at Fantastic Fest last year and was utterly fascinated by it. It recently had a screening at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, but now AFS is giving you a great opportunity to see it if you missed it (or maybe just want to take it all in again). Richard Linklater is back at the Marchesa on Wednesday to present Stuart Rosenberg's The Pope Of Greenwich Village in 35mm and host a post-film conversation. This 1986 drama stars Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts and Daryl Hannah. Essential Cinema wraps up the screening week on Thursday night with Rachid Bouchareb's Oscar-nominated WWII film Days Of Glory

Meanwhile, the Austin Film Festival is teaming up with A24 for "Growing Up Baumbach: A Tribute to Noah Baumbach's 20 Years in Film." Noah's new film While You're Young is opening on April 10, so AFF is taking over the Texas Spirit Theater (inside the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum) to play some of his finest work next week. On Monday night, they'll screen The Squid and the Whale in 35mm, Kicking & Screaming will screen on Tuesday night in 35mm and Frances Ha plays (digitally) on Wednesday night. Tickets are $5 for general admission and are free for AFF members and Bullock Museum members.

Movies This Week: March 20-26, 2015

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Spring 

Even if you've spent the last week in line for SXSW movies all across town, I'm here to report that there's no rest for the wicked. There are a lot of incredible screenings ahead that you won't want to miss, so buck up! First up, the Violet Crown Cinema has White Haired Witch on deck for Asian Movie Madness on Tuesday night. The movie is sponsored by Well Go USA and Iron Dragon TV and you can grab tickets here

Jean Cocteau's 1946 adaptation of Beauty And The Beast screens on Tuesday up at the Austin Film Society Screening Room (1901 E. 51st Street) for Avant Cinema. Richard Linklater returns with the first selection in the "Jewels In The Wasteland II" series, which will find him presenting Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise in 35mm on Wednesday at the Marchesa. You can buy a series pass here to get you into the first 5 films of the series and save some cash if you're going to make it out to each film. On Thursday night, the recent "Children Of Abraham/Ibrahim 9" series wraps up at the Marchesa with 2011's Free Men

The Drafthouse is serving up all-you-can-eat pizza parties for the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie this weekend. It's at Alamo Lakeline on Saturday at noon and then at Alamo Slaughter Lane on Sunday at noon. Afternoon Tea also happens at Alamo Slaughter on Saturday afternoon with Joe Wright's Atonement. There's another benefit screening of The Warriors at Slaughter on Tuesday to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society via the Drafthouse's own MS-150 bike team, and the Drafthouse will also be hosting a "Backwards Feast" for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on Wednesday.  

Review: Cinderella

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Lily James and Cate Blanchett in Cinderella

In director Kenneth Branagh's hands, the movie Cinderella is an uninspired retelling of the famous folktale accompanied by sumptuous set design and lush, technicolor costuming. From the Renoir-inspired setting of the opening scene to the disappointing finale, the film is pretty to look at but empty of any real depth or feeling.

Young Cinderella (Lily James, Downton Abbey) is born to an adoring, yet soon ailing mother (Hayley Atwell, Agent Carter). Her father, played by an unrecognizable Ben Chaplin (The Truth About Cats & Dogs), is a mercer, I think? After her mother's death, he marries brusque widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett, wasted in this role but absolutely pulling off some amazing outfits).

As in the animated Disney original, Cinderella talks to animals. Mice and lizards in this movie are digitized out the wazoo, which is funny yet off-putting. Her stepmother has a cat named Lucifer. Her stepsisters are named Anastasia (Holiday Grainger, Jane Eyre) and Drizella (Sophie McShera, also from Downton Abbey).

Movies This Week: March 6-12, 2015

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We're on the verge of the SXSW Film Festival, so several area theaters will be turning into official venues by this time next week. Specialty screenings are still going on in the week ahead, but it definitely is about to slow down until after the festival has us all wiped out.

Austin Film Society has a Free Member Friday tonight at the Marchesa with Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket. The group will be screening the movie along with the original short film that inspired it and it's free to all AFS members. Members can also go the AFS website to claim two free tickets to a special advance screening on Tuesday night at the Paramount of Alex Gibney's new documentary Going Clear, which examines the Church of Scientology. The film will debut on HBO later this month, but this special advance screening will feature Gibney and Texas author Lawrence Wright after the screening for a Q&A with Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune. Back at the Marchesa, AFS will pay tribute to the late L.M. Kit Carson with a screening of David Holzman's Diary, a 1967 film starring Carson, paired with one his short films called Direction Man. Carson will be posthumously inducted into the Texas Film Hall Of Fame on Thursday night. 

Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane has pays tribute to Saturday Night Live's 40th annversary with regular screenings of The Blues Brothers on Sunday and Tuesday nights. A soul food dinner party Wednesday night offers a full meal along with the classic comedy. Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice hits Slaughter on Tuesday for Girlie Night.

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