Reviews

Theatrical and DVD reviews.

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?

Box-Office Alternatives: The Four Seasons

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It seems the time is upon us once more for another Nicholas Sparks adaptation. The master of the sentimental once again sees another one of his novels featuring lovesick characters overcoming the complexities of life translated to the big screen with The Longest Ride (2015). The story depicts two different small-town romances (one from the past, the other from the present), which share life-altering links.

If there's one thing a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel does very well, it's giving seasoned pros plum roles to sink their teeth into and remind fans what exactly made them legends. Paul Newman, James Garner and Gena Rowlands all enjoyed scene-stealing parts in Sparks adaptations that earned them raves, even if the films themselves floundered.

Alan Alda fills that category this time around, playing a bedridden man with regrets over his past. With so few film appearances these days, Alda's performance just might be reason enough to catch The Longest Ride. In any case, it gives me the perfect excuse to write about my favorite Alan Alda movie, The Four Seasons (1981).

SXSW Review: Being Evel

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Evel Knievel Photos

"Fast, faster, and disaster"
-- Johnny Knoxville, producer of Being Evel

Generations have been affected over several decades by the spirit of legendary icon Evel Knievel. As a child growing up in the 70s, my own most prized possession was my Evel Knievel stunt cycle and action figure. "Popping a wheelie" on my bicycle was an exhilarating micro-attempt to emulate the excitement of witnessing Evel's televised stunt jumps.

Filmmaker Daniel Junge was influenced enough to tell the complex story and legacy of a hero who wasn't always the good guy in his new documentary Being Evel. Junge has artistically created a thorough portrayal of an extraordinary man who was inherently flawed. Knievel's lavish spending and frequent womanizing were quite public, as were his temper and stubbornness. As a showman and king of the daredevils, Knievel set the foundation for the culture of action and extreme sports in the United States.

SXSW Review: I Dream Too Much

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I Dream Too Much

I Dream Too Much, which premiered at SXSW last month, brought former Austinite Katie Cokinos back to town on the festival circuit. Written and directed by Cokinos and starring Eden Brolin, Diane Ladd and Danielle Brooks (Orange is the New Black), I Dream Too Much is a coming-of-age film and a second-coming-of-age film all in one.

The story focuses on Dora (Brolin), a perky undergraduate with a poetic bent who dreams of joining her best friend on summer vacation in Brazil. Her overbearing mother has other ideas, as she wants Dora to pursue a career in law. Her assignment, then, is to spend the summer preparing to take the LSAT.

In order to satisfy her urge to travel and with the justification that it's a quiet place where she can study, Dora volunteers to care for her ailing aunt Vera (Ladd), a wealthy socialite best known as the wife of an acclaimed novelist. The trip will prove more interesting than Dora expected, and both she and Vera will find in each other inspiration and direction.

This is Cokinos' first filmmaking credit, and she has put together a charming movie that benefits most from likable, believable characters. Some of the dialogue felt awkward, particularly in early scenes between Dora and her mother (Christina Rouner). That all disappears the moment a venerable talent like Diane Ladd comes onscreen. Suffice to say she steals the show as the childless matriarch recluse who hosts a poetry club in her home (but never attends). Her poise and presence are perfect for the character, and you can see Brolin make use of her example to elevate her own performance.

Box-Office Alternatives: Hitchcock

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Helen Mirren is perhaps the only actress of her generation who can come close to matching Meryl Streep in terms of still finding quality film roles and delivering spellbinding performances. This week, she takes on the role of a real-life Austrian immigrant, seeking justice for her family by reclaiming a lost piece of art stolen during WWII, in the drama Woman in Gold (2015). Early reviews have been mixed, yet Mirren, as usual, has been showered with praise for another stunning portrayal from the Oscar winner.

For all the nuance that Mirren no doubt brings to Woman in Gold, it surely won’t be able to hold a candle to her finest post-Queen role, as the wife of the master of suspense in Hitchcock (2012). Based on the book by Stephen Rebello, Hitchcock chronicles Alfred Hitchcock’s (Anthony Hopkins) long journey in bringing the now-classic Psycho (1960) to the screen. The film depicts the legendary director’s battles with studio heads, censors and actors over the shocking content of the movie as well as the strain it put on the relationship between his wife/collaborator Alma Reville (Mirren).

Like many films based on the making of Hollywood movies and the people behind them, Hitchcock spent many years in development (with the two leads firmly attached) while producers decided which story they wanted to tell. In the end, they opted for both.

SXSW Review: Welcome to Leith

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Welcome to Leith

White supremacists move to a very small North Dakota town and start buying property, encouraging their friends to do the same so they can eventually "take over" the town. You can picture the resulting documentary -- the interviews with town members, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the tension about how this potentially explosive situation will end. But you might not predict that Welcome to Leith would skillfully show you that the situation is not as clear cut as it sounds, and show the poisonous side effects of not just hate, but fear.

The film opens with an ominous 911 call -- a woman in Leith believes herself to be in peril from men roaming the area with guns. But how did matters get to that point? Welcome to Leith backtracks to show us. It begins when Craig Cobb, whom the SPLC calls "one of the top ten white supremicists in America," buys property in the town of Leith -- three miles, 24 residents, one bar. Cobb is part of a group called the Creators and has a history of publishing personal identifiable information about people who cross him ("doxxing" before that was even a word).

After Cobb buys property in Leith -- at an unbelievably low cost -- he encourages other white supremacist group leaders to buy land there and join him, with a goal of taking over the town entirely. He donates a tract of land to Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance. You can guess what the neighbors think -- especially the town's lone African-American resident, whom Cobb approaches about selling land. Imagine how you'd feel to see a swastika painted on a sign on your neighbor's property. The town leaders decide to change water and sewer ordinances in a way that could possibly drive the unwanted new residents out of town again.

SXSW Review: A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story

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The topic of bullying seems to be a mysterious one. It's talked about quite often, with advocates both young and old rallying for it to be taken seriously within school systems. And yet, legislatures don't think it's an issue worth fighting for. A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story is a documentary film that shows us what the fight against bullying looks like in reality.

You might recognize Lizzie Velasquez right away. Diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder from birth, she was given the heartbreaking title of "World's Ugliest Woman" by an online YouTube bully at the age of 17, sparking millions of comments about her appearance. Her disorder, which is discussed more in the film, is one that makes her unable to gain weight (at 25, her current weight is only 58 pounds).

What makes Lizzie's story so unique is that instead of letting that incident bring her down, it sparked a flame that has since erupted into a movement. In 2013, she was asked to do a TED Talk here in Austin about how bullying effected her, and how she decided to devote her time to creating a YouTube channel that spreads internet encouragement and advice for those struggling with similar situations. Since then, she's spoken to thousands of people all over the country, not to mention countries outside of the U.S. The doc shows us what daily life is like for her: getting recognized everywhere she goes, making her daily YouTube videos, even tackling Washington by pushing to create an anti-bullying bill.

SXSW Review: The Overnight

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The Overnight

Here we have a pair of newcomers to Southern California, watching their little boy on the playground. Oh look, he's sharing his gummy worms with another boy. Oh look, here comes the boy's dad, fussing about the non-organic ingredients in the gummy worms. And just when you think this is going to turn into another Carnage, it turns out the dad is kidding, the atmosphere lightens, and everyone becomes friends ... for the moment.

After the above prologue, The Overnight sticks to its title, set primarily at a dinner party. And as the evening slowly unravels, the tension builds quite effectively and it's difficult to tell what this movie is and where it's going. It's funny, but is it ultimately a comedy? Will it be a dark comedy with a body count? Some kind of inversion on a home invasion film? Eventually you give up wondering and accept that you won't be able to relax until the movie ends.

Emily (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Adam Scott), eager to make friends in their new neighborhood, accept a dinner invitation from Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) after meeting on the aforementioned playground. The little boys are fast friends, but Emily and Alex are more hesitant about a couple that seems a little bit ... off. Kurt wants to show off Charlotte's acting talent by showing a video clip that only enhances the awkward feelings in the air. Kurt shows Alex his studio, with art that is ... unexpected. Charlotte takes Emily on an errand that is ... entirely unexpected. If I keep trying to describe the atmosphere, I'll run out of ellipses.

SXSW Review: Results

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Results

Oh my god, Andrew Bujalski has sold out. The filmmaker with a reputation for populating his indies with non-actors has brought us a film that stars, yes, stars Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders. I don't think I saw a single indie filmmaker in the cast. And it kind of has a plot! And who knows how much money it cost -- he didn't even need to crowdfund. I mean, really, total sellout.

Except that's not the case at all. Results is very much of a piece with Bujalski's previous films, from Mutual Appreciation to Computer Chess. The Austin writer-director's insightfulness about the minutiae of everyday relationships is front and center. The "stars" play characters who work at a gym -- naturally portraying beautiful people without upsetting the balance of the cast.

Danny (Kevin Corrigan) first appears onscreen after his wife locks him out of their New York apartment. Shortly thereafter, we encounter him in an Austin gym, determined to get into shape for reasons he cannot clearly articulate to the gym's owner, Trevor (Pearce). Trevor assigns Kat (Smulders), a demanding and no-nonsense trainer, to work with Danny at his home. It's obvious Danny would like Kat in his life for more than just teaching him ab exercises, though.

SXSW Review: 7 Chinese Brothers

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7 Chinese Brothers

Austin filmmaker Bob Byington likes to set his films in an environment many of us recognize and understand: the featureless, tidy, chain-populated world of the lower-rent suburbs. His characters often work thankless jobs that actually exist in the real world, often in food service. They live in dumpy rentals, they drive cheap or decrepit cars. Apart from the occasional smartphone or computer, the movies could be set in any time in the past few decades and in any American suburb or small city.

And it's within these almost generic settings that Byington brings us movies about people (young men, generally) who change their lives in small but significant ways -- unexpected events leading to improbable effects. It's a slightly twisted world, but ultimately grounded by mundane surroundings.

In Byington's latest movie, 7 Chinese Brothers, slacker Larry (Jason Schwartzman) is fired from a Buca di Beppo after his bosses catch him enjoying the restaurant's booze. They accuse him of hoarding tips as well, although we never find out whether this is actually true.

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