Reviews

Theatrical and DVD reviews.

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay pt 1The movie The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 continues the series, taking it into darker, more adult territory. Fans of the books will not be disappointed. The third film sticks quite close to the events of the Suzanne Collins novel's first half, though the movie is slightly less bloody. Directed by Catching Fire's Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine), Mockingjay is both faithful to the source and also timely commentary on the use of media to influence a revolution.

Peter Craig and Danny Strong penned the screenplay, which picks up immediately after the events in Catching Fire. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been evacuated to the lost District 13, hidden in a vast complex of underground bunkers. As the clampdown by the government of evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) on the rebelling districts continues, her best option to contribute to the revolution is to assume the role for which she has unwittingly been groomed and become the Mockingjay, an inspiration and example to the repressed peoples of Panem broadcast in propaganda videos over hijacked airwaves to all the districts. At the same time, her love and fellow Hunger Games champion Peeta is trapped in the Capital, used as an opposing figure begging for an end to violence in official broadcasts.

Until now, the series has always been told first-person from Katniss' perspective. For the first time here, we see just a few scenes with other characters: President Snow and his staff, District 13 President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Game Master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that set up the film as more of a direct conflict between Katniss and Snow. "Moves and counter-moves," muses Snow at one point, to emphasize that this is a chess match between the two, himself in white and Katniss in black. Caught up in the conflict between them, the districts are all in gray, and the grayest among them is 13.

Review: The Theory of Everything

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The Theory of Everything

There is surprisingly little science in The Theory of Everything, a film about famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking's personal life. There is, however, a lot of kissing.

Well, maybe not that much kissing -- at least compared to other romantic films -- but the movie contains far more romance than science. Want to learn about Hawking's groundbreaking work? Skip the deceptively titled The Theory of Everything, which focuses on Hawking's relationship with his first wife, Jane Hawking, and barely touches on his brilliant scientific ideas.

Based on Jane Hawking's memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, The Theory of Everything opens as grad students Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) begin dating at the University of Cambridge in 1963. All is well with their courtship at first. But within a few months, Stephen is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), a progressive disorder that causes motor neuron degeneration and muscle weakness and atrophy.

Review: Rosewater

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RosewaterWhen you browse to the CNN website, you can choose between US and international editions of the site. While both feature current news items, one edition is focused more heavily on stories about celebrity gossip, xenophobic fears and sports. The other focuses on stories about foreign politics, military activities and human-rights figures. I probably don't have to tell you which is which. The fact is, a majority of Americams don't care about what is happening in other countries. If they did, those stories would be the ones featured in the US edition of CNN, and you would already know the story of Maziar Bahari, the Iranian Canadian journalist imprisoned by the Iranian government for 118 days in 2009 accused of being a spy.

If you have the slightest interest about happenings outside the US, especially in the Middle East -- an area typically ignored and/or misrepresented by most public education here -- you should consider Rosewater essential viewing. Jon Stewart, comedian, actor and host of the perennially popular The Daily Show, has brought Bahari's tale to the big screen after numerous appearances on his program, one of which figured heavily in his incarceration; the Islamic Republic used as evidence against him an appearance in which Jason Jones appeared dressed as a "spy" for comedic effect.

The import of this movie lies in its ability to help bridge the gaps in understanding that result from the holes in our knowledge and direct experience with Iranian culture. Stewart is new to filmmaking, and at times the feature looks more like a TV program than a film. Much of this is owing to the use of footage from various sources, news clips, even footage shot by friends of Bahari in Iran itself. Stewart edits it into a cohesive experience, but the mood shifts irregularly -- it shifts from documentary to drama and even to comedy. Throughout, however, runs a clear message: Governments control their citizens through information, and with the free flow of communication people can overcome an oppressive regime.

Rosewater's first act puts into perspective some things we take for granted. We have unlimited access to information, news, and culture unfettered by government interference, if we only seek it out. Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari encounters an educated group of youths operating a "satellite university" where through illegal hidden satellite dishes, they access the world outside Iran's state-controlled media. As Bahari documents the 2009 election, voters swarm the polls, knowing little about the opposition candidate they support ... other than they'll vote for anyone who isn't Ahmadinejad. Before the polls are even closed, state-run media announce an overwhelming majority of the vote for Ahmadinejad in the rigged election. Bahari's mother Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo) represents the typical voter, unhappy with the Islamic regime but confused by the rampant propaganda on her TV. Meanwhile, rioting breaks out in the streets, and Bahari captures the violence on camera as guards begin firing on civilians, a video that results in his arrest.

AFF Review: 61 Bullets

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61 Bullets

I grew up in the greater New Orleans area, I have minors in political science and history from LSU ... I even worked in the Louisiana State Capitol for awhile. But it wasn't until I saw 61 Bullets at Austin Film Festival that I heard a viable alternative theory about Huey Long's death. (Sure, I heard speculation, but I gave it as much credence as alternate Kennedy assassination theories.) 61 Bullets not only presents the case for this theory compellingly, but it brings in the personal -- the family of Dr. Carl Weiss, accused of assassinating then-Senator Long.

For those of you who haven't had to learn this for a pop quiz, who haven't poked their fingers in the bulletholes in the State Capitol wall, here's the background: In 1935, former La. Gov. Huey Long was shot in the State Capitol. The story we learned is that Weiss leaped out from behind a pillar and started shooting. Long's bodyguards peppered Weiss's body with 61 bullets (thus the documentary's title), and rushed Long to the hospital, but he died several days later. The rationale generally provided for why Weiss did it is that he was mentally unhinged, and perhaps had a beef with Long over Weiss's father-in-law possibly losing a judgeship.

However, many of Weiss's relatives have never quite accepted this theory, it seems. They believe the political ambitions of the Long family (which indeed are legendary) are a big reason behind the concealment of the facts. For example, a federal investigation of the incident never took place -- everything was handled locally, information is missing, etc. Long's body is buried under so much concrete in the Capitol that an autopsy would be impossible, and his surviving descendants/relatives still believe Weiss assassinated him.

AFF Review: Wild

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Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Cheryl Strayed, author and former Dear Sugar advice-giver, wrote a bestseller based on journal entries she kept as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail as a young adult in the '90s. Her Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is deeply felt, harsh in its openness about her past drug use and infidelities, and a loving ode to her mother. When I heard Reese Witherspoon would play Strayed in the cinematic adaptation, I was hesitant to get too excited. Then I saw the trailer and started counting the days til the movie's release. The screening at Austin Film Festival was packed, so I wasn't alone in my eagerness to see Wild.

Author/screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) adapted Strayed's original work; in the hands of director Jean-Marc Valee (Dallas Buyers Club, The Young Victoria), the author's story is told in a type of stream of consciousness. After a cold open with Witherspoon as Cheryl frustratedly throwing a boot off a mountain, we are shown a truck (driven by the real Strayed) dropping our main character off at a less-than-reputable hotel. Before she starts the journey and throughout her long hike -- which seems as much a penance as a form of self-discovery -- quick edits take the viewer through flashes of her memory.  In this non-linear manner, scenes from her childhood, college experience, and young, troubled marriage are interspersed in the timeline of her months-long trek.

Review: Force Majeure

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Force MajeureWhen faced with starvation, some animals eat their young. When facing death, the wisdom goes, nature rewards parents who protect themselves at the expense of their children as, after all, they can always have more children if they survive. There is also a theory that in times of great stress and danger, instinct can take over our actions and override the conscious brain. This week's release at the Arbor, Force Majeure, explores both of these.

Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, the Swedish submission for Best Foreign Language Film in the next Academy Awards won a jury prize at Cannes and audience praise at Fantastic Fest. Peppered with humor at times so subtle I felt it got lost within the drama, Force Majeure reminded me in some way of Escape From Tomorrow. Both films find dark humor with a family of four on holiday when things begin to go nightmarishly wrong.

In this case, that scenario takes the form of a controlled avalanche that proves a little more energetic than expected, threatening the lives of Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their children Vera and Harry (siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren) as they lunch during their ski trip in the French Alps.

Instead of protecting his family or helping get his children out of the situation, Tomas flees the actually harmless snowdrift. Ebba, shocked by the revelation her husband has failed in a moment of weakness to live up to his role as protector, begins to question their marriage. The children are helpless in the face of the very real possibility that their parents may break up the family as their mother obsesses over an action their father patently denies.

Review: Big Hero 6

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Big Hero 6The Walt Disney Animation Studios team continues to knock hits out of the park, following up Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen with this weekend's adaptation of the Marvel comic Big Hero 6. Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams (Bolt), Big Hero 6 is perhaps a first in presenting modern Asian-American leads as positive role models in a major Hollywood studio production for children. 

Young Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is something of a robotics savant, hustling cash in the underground world of robot fighting a la Real Steel. He's encouraged by older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) to apply himself and join him in the advanced robotics program led by Roberto Callaghan (James Cromwell). There he meets fellow students Go Go (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (TJ Miller).

An unexpected disaster leaves Hiro reeling, and with the help of his friends and Baymax (Scott Adsit), his brother's helpful medical robot, Hiro transforms the group into superheroes in order to fight the evil threatening their city of San Fransokyo.

The screenplay by Jordan Roberts, Robert L Baird and Daniel Gerson is fun for kids, presenting science as a cool way to create fun things. It also treads into some darker subject matter, including how to responsibly deal with grief. Nevertheless, Big Hero 6 is clever and funny with entertaining characters (though fans of the comic will note some changes due to the rights to two characters being owned by 20th Century Fox).

Each character in Big Hero 6 has unique and useful powers fitting their personalities and skills, and everyone is sure to choose a favorite. (Mine was TJ Miller-voiced Fred, who loves to pretend he is a kaiju and gets many of the funniest lines as they are improvised by the actor-comedian.) "Come early, stay late," is the rule for this so that you won't miss the absolutely brilliant short Feast playing along with it or the hilarious post-credits stinger.

AFF Review: The Suicide Theory

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Suicide Theory Still PhotoTo what length would a desperate and grief-stricken person go to end their life? Several failed attempts at suicide drive Percival (Leon Cain) to hire a professional hitman to kill him in The Suicide Theory, an Australian thriller written by Michael Kospiah and directed by Dru Brown.

Steven Ray (Steve Mouzakis) is dealing with his own personal tragedy -- his pregnant wife Annie (Zoe de Plevitz) was killed in a hit-and-run accident while crossing the street. He's developed such a phobia that he is stricken with seizures any time he attempts to step off a street curb, to the extent of taking cabs just to cross the block. The two men meet when Percival literally jumps from a building and lands on a cab that Steven is in, casing his next victim. What appears to be a chance meeting to Steven is fate to Percival, who appears to be delusional. However, as Steven repeatedly attempts yet fails to kill Percival, he begins to believe and even identify with Percival's desperation.

As the story of The Suicide Theory further unfolds, we learn that the tragic bond which brings these two unlikely friends together is much darker and complex than can be imagined. As the pieces of the puzzle are revealed and put in place, I found myself on the edge of my seat and engrossed in the revelations. Just enough comedic writing is woven in to help alleviate nervous tension from the seriousness of this film's main plot.

Review: Interstellar

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InterstellarTake the theory of relativity, theories about space and time, and quantum physics; combine them with intense emotions and exploration of relationships, both personal and familial; write a 169-page screenplay about it all, then bring said screenplay to life. While this task sounds like something way over my film-school brain, Christopher Nolan makes it seem easy as cake with his latest movie, Interstellar.

I've watched many a film buff get into heated debates about Nolan's work. There are those who argue his work is flashy, dazzling you with inexplicable knowledge and plot while melting your eyeballs with IMAX cinematography. On the other hand, there are those who argue his work is brilliant, each camera move and plot point an intricate dance filled with depth and emotion. I tend to fall into the middle of this arguement.

The basic premise is this: Cooper (played by Texas favorite, Matthew McConaughey) is a former-engineer-turned-farmer living with his young daugher Murphy and teenage son Tom. We understand right away that Earth is in trouble: All its resources have been utilized and the world is running out of time to find food and water. By some happenstance of the universe, Cooper finds his way over to a secret NASA location, learning about a secret mission to find another planet for humans to live on ... and of course, Cooper is the only man to pilot said ship to save the human race.

While there is no doubt that Nolan's work is (inter)stellar, it can definitely be cumbersome.  I found myself losing focus toward the middle of Interstellar, unsure of what the end result of this 169-minute saga would be. Thankfully, the story reeled back around and left for a compelling (and quite thought-provoking) third act.

One of the few downsides to the movie was the scientific jargon thrown around between characters. Poor line delivery made me wonder (in just a few instances) what the final theory actually was. This film also features a fun game of "Guess how many Hollywood celebs you can spot in space!"

AFF Review: The History of Time Travel

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The History of Time Travel Still Photo

“If you think Hitler with an atomic bomb is bad, imagine Stalin with a time machine.”

As discussed in Austin Film Festival panel "Science Fiction Versus Science Fact," much of fiction is driven by the "What if?" In his feature directorial debut The History of Time Travel, Stephen F. Austin State University student filmmaker Ricky Kennedy takes on the high concept of time travel and the consequences of its use on both personal and world events. Kennedy wrote, directed and edited this fictional documentary, which premiered at AFF.

Filmed entirely on location in Nacogdoches, Texas, The History of Time Travel is presented as a well-constructed docudrama, relating the fictional story of the Indiana Project and the biography of a key contributor, physicist Edward Page (Daniel May). This project is the United States response to reports that Hitler was less interested in nuclear weapons after his scientists began exploring time travel as an ultimate power. Page works long hours for decades, neglecting his wife Anne (Elizabeth Lestina) and son Richard in the hopes of achieving one of man's greatest desires: the ability to travel through time and alter events in one's favor.

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