Reviews

Theatrical and DVD reviews.

SXSW Review: Petting Zoo

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Deztiny Gonzales and Devon Keller in Petting Zoo

Layla (newcomer Devon Keller) is a high-school senior shacking up with her dropout boyfriend Danny (Kiowa Tucker). An honor student, she gets a scholarship to UT Austin and then finds out she's pregnant. Given her predicament, what can she do? Petting Zoo, from director Micah Magee (see my interview with her), thrusts the viewer into several months of Layla's life.

One notable facet to the main character is that she is working poor.  Layla refuses to live with her financially stable but abusive father, so has to move in with her elderly grandmother (Adrienne Harrell, Zero Charisma) and share a bed. Magee perfectly conveys the utter vulnerability of her situation. We see Layla sleeping many times -- through loud parties in Danny's apartment, in a friend's car after seeing Girl in a Coma, on her grandmother's couch after hearing bad news. Such sequences illustrate the precariousness of her life, and the limits of her control -- especially when she loses her support system.

This is not to say that Layla has no choice in anything; that would be a false statement.  What decisions she can make, she does. She leaves her loser boyfriend, decides to keep her baby, and wants to make it on her own. She also falls into a relationship with fellow graduate Aaron (Austin Reed).

SXSW Review: Heaven Knows What

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Heaven Knows What

Dramas do not get much darker than Heaven Knows What -- or more realistic.

Based on the novel Mad Love in New York City by Arielle Holmes, who also stars in the film, Heaven Knows What is bleak from its first horrifying scene. Homeless, heroin-addicted teen Harley (Holmes) is threatening to kill herself, and her emotionally abusive boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) goads her into going through with it. She slashes her wrist, but immediately changes her mind and pleads with Ilya and her homeless friends to call 911.

Harley's desperate act lands her in the psych ward at Bellevue Hospital. True to form, Ilya disappears from her life while she's recovering. Completely alone when she's released, she relies on her friend Skully (underground rapper and cult figure Necro) to help her survive on the streets. But Skully is little better than Ilya; he tells her to forget her useless and noncommittal boyfriend -- something she doesn't want to hear -- and becomes abusive when she rejects his friendship.

SXSW Capsule Reviews: Western, The Ceremony, The Last Man on the Moon, Deep Web

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WesternThis is turning out to be a very different year for SXSW, as though last year's tragedy marked a turning point where the city and the SXSW staff realized that things had gotten out of hand with too much going on at once with too little control. The result has been in my own observation that downtown seemed practically dead when I arrived Friday to pick up my badge. Strictly limited permitting for outside events and venues in addition to much of the interactive events being relocated away from the convention center have thinned the crowd to manageable levels, though we will see if that persists as the music portion of the fest kicks into gear.

Movies I've seen:

Western 

This documentary by brothers Bill and Turner Ross (who premiered Tchoupitoulas at SXSW 2012) covers 13 months in the border city of Eagle Pass during Chad Foster's last term as mayor. Foster gained recognition as an outspoken opponent of the border fence idea.

Much of the film focuses on the lives of ranchers and cattle traders who purchase cattle on the Mexican side of the border and transport them for sale in the US. Eagle Pass is presented as an idyllic locale where the Mexican and American cultures are so intermingled as to be indistinct. Foster, for instance, in his speeches switches between perfectly-accented Spanish and a completely authentic Texan drawl English mid-sentence. As outside political forces close the border and begin to erect walls that threaten their livelihood, the citizens of Eagle Pass struggle to understand the paranoia over drug cartel violence until it reaches their doorstep.

SXSW Review: She's The Best Thing In It

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Writer/director Ron Nyswaner once talked to me about how he thought he was considered a "niche writer" in Hollywood. In an interview at the 2013 Austin Film Festival, Nyswaner says, "If you know a story about someone who's been beaten to death with a baseball bat because he was dating a transgender woman, call me. I do those things [stories] really well."

I prepared myself for that same grit when I watched Nyswaner's film She's The Best Thing In It, and was pleased to see that same kind of intensity manifested in a different way.

This film is Nyswaner's directorial debut as a documentary filmmaker. It follows award-winning actress Mary Louise Wilson as she embarks on teaching a college acting class in her hometown of New Orleans. Now in her 70s, Wilson is seen by some as a "has been." Photos and film clips take us through her history of stardom in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but wear off upon present day.

SXSW Review: 6 Years

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When I think of Hannah Fidell's style as a filmmaker, I'm reminded of something that Peter Bogdanovich once told a class I took in film school. He said that he believed that films should tell a story in the simplest way. To achieve this, you shouldn't let your audience feel like they're watching something on a screen, but instead be transported to the moments your characters are encountering as if you're right there next to them. This was my constant thought while watching Fidell's latest movie, 6 Years.

The SXSW veteran premiered her second feature this past weekend, just two years after the debut of her critically-acclaimed film A Teacher. Having seen A Teacher back in 2013, I was eager to find out how this latest piece would grab me. A first feature is a great mountain to climb, but a second feature is a different kind of beast. It's when filmmakers start to show their trends, their consistencies and what makes them stand out as storytellers.

The story focuses on the crumbling relationship between college students Dan (Ben Rosenfield) and Mel (Taissa Farmiga). Set in our hometown of Austin, Dan and Mel have a perfectly content relationship until some big life changes start to shift their world views. It feels like a story that's happened to most of us: trying to deal with the plans you make versus the plans life initially has in store for you. It's heartbreaking yet satisfactory to see this kind of story told so well on screen.

SXSW Review: Peace Officer

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Peace Officer

Sometimes peace is purchased with violence.
-- Salt Lake County Sheriff James Winder, in Peace Officer

William "Dub" Lawrence is the perfect documentary subject. After a long career in law enforcement, he has many stories to tell -- he helped break the Ted Bundy case as a rookie cop, and the failings of criminal justice he saw on the beat inspired his successful run for Sheriff of Davis County, Utah in 1974. Now semi-retired, he works as a private investigator and, curiously, also repairs water and sewage pumps. In his spare time, he flies his private plane.

He's also spent much of his spare time investigating a tragic episode in his life, one that inspired the enraging new documentary Peace Officer: In 2008, the SWAT team he established 30 years earlier killed his son-in-law, Brian Wood, during a standoff at Wood's house.

After physically abusing his wife, Wood retreated to the cab of his pickup and was threatening to kill himself. He was calm and threatened no one else, but when police arrived, the incident quickly escalated as dozens of officers from multiple SWAT teams surrounded the house. They arrived in armored vehicles and even a helicopter, shot out the truck's windows, and the event became a media circus. After many hours, the standoff ended in mayhem -- and Wood ended up dead. The police claimed he committed suicide.

SXSW Review: Manglehorn

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Manglehorn

Thank you, David Gordon Green, for giving Al Pacino his best role in years.

The eminent actor appears in almost every scene of Green's latest film, Manglehorn, giving Pacino plenty of time to explore the grumpy oddball A.J. Manglehorn's every mood and motivation. Rarely are an actor and role so well matched, as Pacino plays A.J. with a perfect mix of shopworn sadness, vulnerability and simmering anger. (Known for his louder performances --- Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon and Tony Montana in Scarface are only two among many -- Pacino reminds us that he has the range to play much quieter and more sensitive types.)

A.J. is the central figure in a story of loss and regret. An aging locksmith, he spends lonely days in his cluttered shop with few customers. Long divorced, he spends equally lonely nights with his cat. His self-absorbed son, Jacob (Chris Messina), has no time for him, and he rarely sees his granddaughter, Kylie (Skylar Gasper).

In his lonelier moments -- there are many -- A.J. obsesses about a lost love, Clara (Natalie Wilemon). She wasn't his wife and their relationship ended long ago, but Manglehorn tells us little more about her. Whoever Clara is, A.J. remains passionately in love with her; he still writes her letters.

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).

'5 to 7' Proves Romantic Comedy Still Exists

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5 to 7

I've never been particularly fond of romantic comedies on the whole. For me, it is the one genre of film that I've found to be the most blatantly straightforward and unsurprising. The standard setups, usual characters and typical obstacles are always present and accounted for, regardless of how some filmmakers try to dress things up. And while such romantic comedy blueprints have given vast amounts of joy to countless movie lovers for ages, it seemed that there was always something lacking for me within that world.

It's true, you may find a title or two in my DVD collection that bears the romantic comedy stamp, but those specific titles tell stories of love from different angles. Take for example the little-seen Til There Was You (1997), a small film about two adults who experience a number of failed romances over the course of two decades, only to finally meet each other in the last few minutes of the movie. It's a funny and thoughtful comment on romance and the journey most people must take towards finding the one they are meant for.

If there was any film that would be a game changer for me in this regard, it's definitely 5 to 7 (2014). Upon viewing the film at the Austin Film Society pre-Valentine's Day screening, I can say that I have finally seen a film which truly embodies the term "romantic comedy." Produced by 2015 Texas Film Awards honoree Bonnie Curtis and written and directed by Victor Levin, 5 to 7 is loaded with sharp comedic moments and a compelling story squarely focused on the transformative power of love on the individual.

Review: Hot Tub Time Machine 2

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Hot Tub Time Machine 2The phrase "Hot Tub Time Machine" was such an insane concept I couldn't wait to see the 2010 release. (Debbie's review) Sure, it was a fratboy movie, but it was fresh and edgy at a time when the nation was just learning to laugh again a decade after 9/11, and I loved it. Five years was a long time to wait with such anticipation for this sequel.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is a wet hot mess, with bad jokes as frequent as jacuzzi bubbles, and good jokes popping like farts in a tub. It has the same writer (Josh Heald), the same director (Steve Pink) and largely the same cast (John Cusack is replaced by Adam Scott), but it failed to capture the same magic for me. I can't say I hated it, but somehow it felt ... different, like I was watching an elaborately extended Super Bowl commercial.

The original movie was tight, with a relatively narrow scope, but this one felt like Seth MacFarlane had an advising role on set. The characters are not just juvenile and drug-addled. They are absolutely moronic. In particular, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 suffers from too much Rob Corddry, way too much, physically speaking. I don't know if the man deserves recognition for being willing to go so far for a laugh or instead pity for being the guy who will go that far.

The story concerns the fate of the original characters, now returned to a weirdly altered timeline in which they have lived out their lives with future knowledge becoming rich and famous by pre-plagiarizing hit songs and founding their own version of Google. When Lou (Corddry) is shot by an unknown assailant, the group of friends must use the hot tub to again travel back to the past to fix the future. Hmmm.

There really are a number of good gags, and Adam Scott has great chemistry with Craig Robinson, Clark Duke and Corddry, better chemistry in fact than Cusack. Chevy Chase is a bright spot for the moment he's there. His appearance feels as if much more of it was left on the cutting-room floor. (Between Chase, Scott, Corddry and Gillian Jacobs, this was practically a Community/Parks & Recreation crossover.) The real heroes of this film are the digital artists, costumers and set designers who designed and executed a really insane version of the present and a far-out version of the near future.

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