Reviews

Theatrical and DVD reviews.

Dallas IFF Reviews: 'Tomato Republic' and 'Cowboys of Color'

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Tomato Republic Rob GowinIn the crumbling small town of Jacksonville, known as the Tomato Capital of Texas, a speeding train is coming -- not the frequent trains residents hear almost continually, but a heated mayoral race.

That's the premise of Tomato Republic, a documentary featurette that premiered at the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), where it won a special jury award. Directed by Jenna Jackson, Anthony Jackson and Whitney Graham Carter, Tomato Republic focuses on the mayoral race between three candidates -- incumbent Kenneth Melvin, outspoken restaurateur Rob Gowin, and Kenneth Melvin, the youngest candidate and first African-American to run for the (unpaid) office.

The town's colorful characters are the most engaging part of this film, whether it's the three candidates or the "Rusk Rocket Scientists," who hang out and gossip at local establishments.

I found myself most amused by the filmmaker and interviewees acknowledging the trains running past the town that would often interrupt the filming. When the trains run so often that football games and high-school graduations are impacted, it's ingenious to integrate that frequent occurrence into a documentary.

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. 

Dallas IFF Review: Produce

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Produce Still PhotoFilmmaker Chris Dowling, an alumnus of the radio-TV-film program at The University of Texas at Austin, wrote and directed family drama Produce, which debuted at the Dallas International Film Festival last week. Although this film deals with some heavy-hearted issues, overall Produce is an engaging and entertaining story that should please viewers.

The opening sequence of a morning routine of breakfast, shower and a bike commute to work at first appears typical, until the camera angle widens and we see the character simply known as Produce (David DeSanctis), who has Down's Syndrome. It's this foundation that sets an important plot point for the film -- Produce is not defined by his condition despite the challenges and prejudices that he faces daily. He wants nothing more than to be employee of the month at the Value Market where he works as a produce clerk. Sadly his manager and co-workers don't respect him or appreciate his strengths.

The character who's the most challenged in Produce is Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha), a former professional baseball player who choked during a game and numbs his shame with alcohol. The real adult in the house is his daughter, 17-year-old Katie (McKaley Miller), often left to fend for herself while her dad is out drinking with his booze buddies. Calvin's self-destructive behavior threatens his relationship with his daughter, as well as a potential career as a baseball manager.

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.

Lone Star Cinema: An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story

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An Unreal Dream

If you spent nearly 25 years in prison for a crime you didn't commit, would you be bitter?

Michael Morton isn't. Which is surprising, given that he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, spent almost 25 years behind bars and would remain there today if not for the tenacious attorneys who won his release.

Morton's frightening ordeal is the subject of An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, a moving 2013 documentary  released on DVD April 1. More than just a recounting of Morton's astonishing and infuriating story, the film is a meditation on faith and redemption.

The film's title is based on a quote from United States Justice Learned Hand: "Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream." But "an unreal dream" is too tepid a description of Morton's suffering; his story is in every way a nightmare.

AFS Doc Nights Preview: Blood Brother

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Still from Blood Brother

Blood Brother, which Austin Film Society will screen Tuesday evening at the Marchesa as part of the Doc Nights series, is very obviously a labor of love. Filmmaker Steve Hoover travelled to India with his best friend Rocky Braat, who was returning after a short break to his work volunteering at a rural hostel for mothers and children with HIV/AIDS. For a few months, the director documented the daily life of his friend and the kids he serves.

The documentary may sound at first like a white-guy-goes-to-a-developing-country-to-do-good story (it kind of is one, literally), particularly when Rocky says things like he went to India "seeking authenticity." But Blood Brother is a layered film, and goes far deeper than this initial premise. The film kicks off in medias res, with an older man clutching a near-lifeless child to his chest; Rocky and others are shown racing to take the girl to the hospital. In this manner, Blood Brother grabs your attention from the start. Later on, the viewer learns more about these events and the people involved. 

Dallas IFF Review: Flutter

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WeeWee and Johnathan -- Flutter Still PhotoTo what length will mothers go to protect their children -- or grandchildren -- and what's the definition of a "bad" parent?

That's the core theme of Flutter, the narrative debut for Austin filmmaker Eric Hueber, who wrote this moving family drama as an homage to his own deceased own mother. That personal connection lends to an intimate portrayal of a mother's unconditional love for her son.

Johnathan (Johnathan Huth Jr.) is obsessed with the sea, and battles the imaginary creatures within along with his 300-pound pet pig Wee Wee. Due to an often debilitating condition of of nystagmus and severe glaucoma, Johnathan must take medication to relieve the excruciating pain and pressure that could cause irreversible blindness.

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. 

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