New Releases

Review: Obvious Child

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Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

One of the films I regret missing at SXSW is Obvious Child, which opens in Austin on Friday. Jenny Slate (Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation) stars as Donna, a raunchy stand-up comedian. A one-night stand with cute yuppie Max (Jake Lacy, The Office) leads to Donna's accidental pregnancy, and she schedules an appointment to have an abortion. Unlike many other movies or TV shows (Juno, Sex and the City) where a character wants an abortion and then changes her mind, Donna is resolute in her decision.

What she is uncertain about is pretty much everything else. Her boyfriend just broke up with her in a gross bar restroom (props to the set designers for creating a truly dingy-looking bathroom). The bookstore where she works is closing, and her career in stand-up is far from explosive. Her mother (Polly Draper, thirtysomething) encourages her to make real plans for the future. Max seems too straight-laced to be her type, but Donna really likes him. She's just not sure what his response to her news will be.

Director Gillian Robespierre based her first feature on her 2009 short of the same name, which also starred Slate.  There's a raw feeling to the humor and to Slate's portrayal of Debbie. Her post-breakup, wasted stand-up set is terrifically awkward for all involved. A small complaint would be that this set seems to last longer than it should, but it truly showcases Debbie's feeling of humiliation.

Review: We Are the Best!

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We Are The Best!

Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's filmography has had a spotty history of even being seen in the United States. His earlier works Show Me Love and Together managed to receive distribution here, but some of his more serious films (like the brutal sex-trafficking drama Lilya 4-ever and A Hole In My Heart) never were even properly released here. In 2009, he made his English-language debut with a film called Mammoth that IFC released stateside and then he fell off the radar for a few years.  

He's finally returned to the big screen with We Are the Best!, a lighthearted adaptation of the graphic novel Never Goodnight, written by his wife Coco Moodysson. Set in 1982 Stockholm, we're introduced to Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), two 13-year-old best friends who don't really fit in socially at school. They're tomboyish and seem to live in their own little world, mostly happy to be excluded by their peers and misunderstood by their parents. When they get the idea to start a punk band, they recruit a shy Christian girl from their class named Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) who is an excellent guitarist. Since Bobo and Klara don't even know how to play instruments, they get Hedvig to help them prepare for a school talent show.

Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

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How To Train Your Dragon 2It has been five years since Hiccup befriended Toothless and brought peace between the Vikings of Berk and the dragons in How to Train Your Dragon. Now they're back for an adventure with new villains, increased stakes, and of course, bigger dragons in How to Train Your Dragon 2.

All of the original voice cast returns in this sequel by writer/director Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stitch), and they are joined by Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou (Amistad) and Kit Harington (Game of Thrones). The characters are already well established by the 2010 film as well as two seasons of the Dreamworks Dragons TV series that continued their story, but this film is almost entirely about Hiccup and Toothless, leaving the rest of their friends largely in the background.

A young man now, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) no longer has to struggle for the approval of his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) and is full of confidence as the leader of Berk's dragonriders, but he grows restless, longing to explore and learn about the world as Stoick demands more time of him at home to prepare for his role as the future chief of the island.

On another of his frequent explorations, Hiccup discovers a dragon trapper (Harington) and learns of a terrifying new menace. This sets off a chain of events that takes the characters through a much darker, more grown-up story arc much like the progression of the Harry Potter series, which aged with its viewers. Stronger emotions, good and bad, are brought to the surface and explored through serious themes including duty, war, loss and budding sexual attraction. Strong topics for a kids' film, but weaved skillfully through a powerful action-adventure tale.

Visually, Dreamworks Animation has always held a reputation for producing the top films, but they've set a new bar with How to Train Your Dragon 2. New animation software and touch-screen technology allowed animators to directly manipulate characters by hand, and if you look closely, fans of other dragon-related series may notice some easter eggs including a nod to Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern.

Review: 22 Jump Street

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22 Jump Street

Fresh off the runaway success of The Lego Movie, the directorial team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller returns with what will likely be summer's most satisfying comedy for adults. Even though the trailers didn't inspire much confidence that 22 Jump Street would actually be any good, it turns out that this wholly unnecessary sequel was worth waiting for.

Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill reprise their roles as Jenko and Schmidt, two cops on the hunt for drug dealers. While the first film followed the inspiration of the original Fox series by having them go undercover in high school, 22 Jump Street sends the guys to college. The movie is 150% in on the joke, repeatedly making fun of movie sequels and encouraging the stars to do everything "just like last time" with a knowing wink to the audience. So often, that's what we all hate about Hollywood movies, but it works perfectly here. 

Review: Ida

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Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska in IDA

Two women are on a journey in Ida, by director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love, The Woman in the Fifth), opening Friday in Austin at Regal Arbor. Orphaned Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska making her film debut), a novice nun, has just found out she is Jewish and her birth name is Ida. Her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza, Suicide Room, Rose), a listless alcoholic judge, is taking her to find her lost family.

One can assume that since it's the late Fifties or early Sixties in the People's Republic of Poland, and Anna is Jewish and in her twenties, the story of what happened to her family is likely tied to the previous Nazi occupation.

Pawlikowski chose to shoot his film in black and white, which adds to the historical aspect of the narrative, but used a squishy 1.37:1 aspect ratio which almost negates any cinematic feeling Ida might have. Within these limits, the director still captures some beautifully framed shots. The stairs in the hotel lobby, the placement of Anna's head in the frame -- there are artistic touches here. The cinematography -- boxy as it may feel -- reflects how Anna keeps herself apart.

Summer Indies to Catch: June 2014

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PING PONG SUMMER

This month, the multiplex looks to deliver audiences Clint Eastwood's take on a hit Broadway musical, yet another Tom Cruise sci-fi/action vehicle and four, count 'em four sequels. Yet for anyone wishing to look a little deeper, beyond the icons and the franchises they'll find a collection of thrills, laughs, drama, conflict and tension from both renowned and up-and-coming filmmakers. 

Words and Pictures (now in Austin theaters)

Australian director Fred Schepisi's filmography is a peculiar one, consisting of a collection of solid films (A Cry in the Dark, Six Degrees of Separation), which seem to resonate with cinephiles, but fail to become classics. His latest offering, the romantic dramedy Words and Pictures, may indeed follow suit, but its definitely one of his warmest and sincerest efforts to date. At a private school, a snarky English teacher (Clive Owen), is taken by a caustic art instructor (Juliette Binoche) new to the faculty. A love story at heart, Words and Pictures takes two actors, unknown for their romantic comedy chops, and throws them into said genre with two fun, meaty characters to play. Though the romance will be the draw for most audiences, its the film's debate of writing versus art, and the overall question as to which is the greater form of human expression, that actually make Words and Pictures intriguing.

Review: Cold in July

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Cold in July

Joe R. Lansdale is such a prolific and successful author, it's surprising we don't see more of his work on the big screen.

A native Texan, Lansdale has published more than 30 mysteries and crime novels set mostly in the Lone Star State, as well as novellas, comic books, graphic novels and many short stories. But only a few of his works have been adapted for film or TV; the 2002 cult film Bubba Ho-Tep is based on a Lansdale novella, and a handful of his short stories have inspired short films. He's also written a few screenplays.

But if the gripping new thriller Cold in July is the success it deserves to be, we may see a lot more movies based on Lansdale's books and stories. Adapted from Lansdale's novel of the same title, Cold in July is a solid bit of Texas noir, a taught and satisfying crime film that delivers in most ways.

Set in East Texas in 1989, Cold in July opens as small-town frame shop owner Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) finds an intruder in his home and shoots the man, Freddy Russell (Wyatt Russell), to death. When the police assure Dane that his actions were in self defense and no charges will be filed, he and his wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw) assume that's the end of the matter.

Review: Night Moves

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night moves still

Kelly Reichardt is a deliberate filmmaker. The scenes she writes, directs and edits rarely feel hurried or careless, and the stories she tells, incredibly focused, have a way of slowly building towards bigger and (usually frightening) truths about society and the people who exist on its fringes. 

Two of Reichardt's earlier films, Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, portray melancholy wanderers with uncertain future prospects, and in many ways Night Moves does this, too. Though more overtly suspenseful than her previous work, her latest effort still maintains a measured restraint as the story advances towards a clearer view of the ambiguous situation at hand. 

It's tough to describe the plot of Night Moves without giving too much away, but it's fair to say that eco-terrorism, paranoia, simmering frustration and CSA boxes all come into play. Set in gray, moody Oregon amongst co-op dwellers and vaguely rebellious idealists, the story follows three particularly ambitious outsiders as they work to carry out a law-breaking and attention-grabbing plan. 

Review: Edge of Tomorrow

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Edge of TomorrowHow do you fight an enemy that already knows exactly what you’re going to do? You throw a Tom Cruise missile at them, someone who doesn’t know himself what he’s going to do. That’s what Brendan Gleeson's General Brigham does in Edge of Tomorrow, the first and possibly best blockbuster action film this summer.

Directed by Doug Liman (Jumper, Mr and Mrs Smith, The Bourne Identity) and scripted by Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) based on the Japanese comic All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow begins at the end of a war to save the planet from a mysterious alien invader. General Brigham is ready to lead a concerted push from every nation to encircle and destroy the enemy, and he calls Lt. Col. Bill Cage (Cruise), a US Army talking head public-relations officer who’s never seen a day of combat in to cover the D-Day style invasion.

A pathetic attempt to blackmail his way out of putting boots on the ground lands Cage busted to a rank of private and branded an attempted deserter, where he is put under command of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton), outfitted with a mechanized combat suit, and dumped on the deadliest beach ever to see an invasion. In less than five minutes, Cage is dead, and that ends the first of countless times he must repeat the day, Groundhog Day-style, due to a one-in-a-million accident.

He meets up with Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) aka "Full Metal Bitch," the war hero responsible for Earth’s lone victorious battle at Verdun, and learns from her that he must improve his skills through innumerable deaths as he is the only hope for humanity’s survival.

McQuarrie’s script is intelligent and tight, providing just enough information and leaving just enough unsaid to encourage the audience to read between the lines. Great cinematography and crisp editing keep the action going at a brisk pace, so none of the repeated scenes grows stale.

Review: Filth

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FilthMy first thought on how to describe Filth, which opens Friday for a nightly late-night run at Violet Crown, was that it felt something like Trainspotting meets Fight Club. Then I saw the credits and learned indeed it was based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, who also wrote Trainspotting. (I watched the movie before seeing any publicity materials that clearly indicate this fact.) That it stars James McAvoy (who bears some resemblance to Ewan McGregor) following a self-destructive path of crime and debauchery plays into this comparison.

Filth begins with a murder, which Bruce (McAvoy) is assigned to investigate. Success will lead to a promotion, which Bruce is hell-bent on achieving in hope of winning back the love of his estranged wife and eliciting the return of her and their child. Possessed of a mean streak, however, he spends more time pranking his fellow police in hope of ruining their chances of competing for the promotion.

Jon S. Baird, who wrote and directed Filth, is clearly influenced by Stanley Kubrick. The true plot reveals itself as the mystery unfolds over the course of the film, and Bruce frequently has hallucinations where he is transported to the hotel room from the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There his psychiatrist, Dr. Rossi (Jim Broadbent), berates him for being a pig and hints that his problems are at least in part due to not taking his medicine.

As he continues his downward spiral, scheming and causing trouble for his friends and coworkers, Bruce also attempts to fill the ever-growing hole in his heart with sex everywhere he can find it. He takes his best friend Bladesey (Eddie Marsan) on a brothel tour while also wooing his wife (Shirley Henderson, aka Moaning Myrtle from the Harry Potter series) as a prank phone caller.

Rarely would I so describe a movie, but Filth is very Scottish. Some of the dialogue was difficult to follow for one not familiar with the vernacular, though the loss of finer nuances did not make the plot unclear.

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