Elizabeth Stoddard's blog

Lone Star Cinema: Miss Congeniality


Candice Bergen and Sandra Bullock walk in front of a re-purposed Dillo in Miss Congeniality

Miss Congeniality, released in 2000, was filmed in New York City and San Antonio, but mostly in Austin. I recall it was a big deal when they filmed the movie in town because they closed down a section of Congress, and people attempted to catch a glimpse of the stars around town.  

The Sandra Bullock feature has her playing FBI agent Gracie Hart, assigned to a team investigating a threat to the Miss United States pageant. Benjamin Bratt plays her colleague/team leader/love interest Eric Matthews, who decides Hart will go undercover at the beauty pageant. Overseeing her entry into the pageant world is Michael Caine, who camps it up in this movie. Candice Bergen is the pageant -- er, scholarship program -- coordinator, and Heather Burns almost steals the show as a clueless Miss Rhode Island.

Miss Congeniality is your standard ugly-duckling-gets-turned-into-a-lovely-swan-by-federally-sponsored-beauticians tale. Hart is initially abrasive and female friend-less and by the close of Miss Congeniality has come to know and appreciate her fellow contestants ... after they have bonded over neon-paint-drumming (!!), Mr. Gatti's pizza and a makeover. The film aims for a girl power message, but it is far too muddled.

SXSW Announces 2012 Shorts and Midnight Movies


SXSW Film 2012 logo

Last week, SXSW announced the feature film lineup for the 2012 Film Festival, and today we've heard word about the short films and midnight screenings that will be headed our way this March. In recent years, some of my favorite finds at SXSW have been short films, and here's hoping this year is no different.  

Two of the programs will especially focus on films by Texans: Texas Shorts and Texas High School Shorts. A large slate of music videos is also in the lineup, including one by Austinite PJ Raval for Christeene ("African Mayonnaise"). Among the 135 shorts screening at the festival:

  • Kat Candler's Hellion is part of the Texas Shorts program. The Austin filmmaker's short premiered at Sundance earlier this year. In his Sundance preview, Don calls it "an unexpected twist on how fathers, sons and brothers deal with other."
  • Using stop-motion animation, Abuelas reflects on the past violence in Argentina through a grandmother's narration. I caught this beautifully haunting short at AFF. It returns to Austin through the SX Global Shorts program. 
  • Remember how 12 Monkeys was a long-form remake of the 1962 short La Jetee? Well, Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke takes the French short to modern-day Miami and throws in 2 Live Crew's Uncle Luke. What say you, Terry Gilliam?

Jump on the Catbus and Head to Alamo's Studio Ghibli Series


Still from My Neighbor Totoro

February brings us a new film from Japan's Studio Ghibli, internationally known for its animated movies. The Secret World of Arrietty will open in Austin on Feb. 17. But that's not the only treat for Ghibli fans in Austin. Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar will host a Studio Ghibli Retrospective starting later this week and running through early May (with a break for SXSW). The series features new 35mm prints of nine animated films, all subtitled, seven of which are directed by Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki. Each movie will screen once a night for a week-long period.

Here's a list of the films being screened and dates:

  • Spirited Away (2001), Feb. 10-16 [tickets/info] -- The Academy Award winner for Best Animated Film follows a young girl in her adventure in a spirit world populated by masked wraiths, a witch with a huge head, a big baby and more.
  • Castle in the Sky (1986), Feb. 17-23 [tickets/info] -- I haven't seen this one, but it seems this movie tells the story of a flying city named Laputa, a boy and a girl searching for it, and involves a glowing crystal and sky pirates. 

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin


Ezra Miller and Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin

What if you were scared of your own child? We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on Lionel Shriver's award-winning novel, is an intense glance at the relationship between Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) and her son Kevin (played in teenage form by Ezra Miller). The editing is stream-of-consciousness style, as memories of Eva's pre-motherhood life mix with Kevin's childhood mixed with her current life as a social outcast. The viewer has to piece together why she's now living alone in a town full of people who detest her so strongly.

Through glimpses/flashbacks, we see Kevin's antipathy towards others start at a young age. Try as she might, Eva cannot connect with him. She rolls a ball to her toddler son and he just blankly stares back at her. Her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) seems to have no problem getting along with their son, and is oblivious to Eva's worries. They later have a daughter Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) who is much freer with her affections and easy to please.

As he grows older, Kevin displays more antisocial tendencies, killing his sister's pet (we assume) and orchestrating an attack at his high school. Unlike in Gus van Sant's Elephant, we don't see the violent acts being carried out against fellow students. The movie is from Eva's POV, so we see her having to deal with the fallout of Kevin's actions.

Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close


Sandra Bullock and Thomas Horn in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Some of my favorite movies happen to feature wonderful child actors, such as A Little Princess (the Cuarón version), About a Boy, Mostly Martha and Little Miss Sunshine. I say that to preface this statement: I can't recall the last time I've been so annoyed by a child actor as I was during the preview screening of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This is a problem, as precocious Oskar Schell (played by newbie Thomas Horn) is in most of the film. And it may have been the character as much as (if not more than) the actor that made me want to walk out of the theatre halfway through.

Oskar is a very troubled child. His father Thomas (Tom Hanks) was killed on 9/11, and they had an extremely close relationship. Thomas had told his son about a lost sixth borough of New York, and Oskar began investigating what had happened to it. A year after 9/11, Oskar stumbles upon a hidden key in his dad's closet, and determinedly sets out on a search into what this key will unlock. The key was in an envelope with "Black" written on it, so Oskar meanders around the city and its boroughs talking to anyone with the last name Black that he can find, shaking his tambourine along the way.

This kid has Asperger's-like symptoms as well as various phobias. He yells at his mom Linda (Sandra Bullock), talks to grandma (Zoe Caldwell, The Purple Rose of Cairo) across the street via walkie-talkie, chides the doorman (John Goodman, pretty much wasted in this movie) and confesses his story to the elderly mute man (Max von Sydow) renting a room from his grandma. His aggression towards himself and others is hard to watch. I couldn't understand his motivation for keeping certain things secret, and found it a challenge (nigh impossible) to emotionally connect to the young character.

Review: The Iron Lady


Jim Broadbent and Meryl Streep in the Iron Lady

The Iron Lady attempts to depict the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister of the U.K. It does so in a less than cohesive manner, but the acting by Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent shines through.

A significant portion of the film occurs in 2011 (at least this is my assumption from hints given), with an octogenarian Margaret Thatcher (Streep) under the sway of dementia and visions of her dead husband Denis (Broadbent). Quick flutters of memory, such as holding hands during The King and I, are interspersed with longer flashbacks of growing up a grocer's daughter and her eventual entrance into the political world. For the present, her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) and Thatcher's household staff are waiting for her to clean out Denis' wardrobe since he has been dead for eight years.

Phyllida Lloyd's first non-musical film seems dependent on the use of angled shots (to illustrate confusion? I'm not really sure why) and many montages. About a sixth of the film is Thatcher walking around various places followed by a group of white guys (I exaggerate slightly). Some of the flashback moments are edited so hurriedly that the viewer doesn't have much of a chance to connect or react.

2011 in Review: Elizabeth's Favorite Performances


Cast of Bridesmaids

It's January, awards season is nigh and it's already time to look back to a few weeks ago when it was 2011. Out of the many and various movies I saw last year, some included outstanding, memorable performances that deserve a little more attention. While I haven't yet seen The Iron Lady or We Need to Talk About Kevin, this list is my attempt to shine a light on my favorite onscreen performers from 2011.

1. Viola Davis, The Help 
Davis' Aibileen speaks in stoic glances, gently assures her baby charge that she is loved, and slowly opens up to Skeeter (Emma Stone).  

It's been months since I've seen the film, but the image of Aibileen running through the streets of Jackson after Medgar Evers' assassination remains fresh in my memory. In this moment especially, Davis has made her character so real and sympathetic that the viewer shares her fear. Davis is the standout of a marvelous cast. (my review)

Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy thriller based on a book by John le Carré (who serves as an executive producer of the movie). The film boasts a large cast of excellent pedigree, but a plodding pace and confusing timeline left me cold. The temperature in the theatre at Alamo South Lamar during the screening also left me cold -- perhaps it was to reinforce the Cold War-era setting? 

The film opens in 1973, when Control (John Hurt) sends an operative (Mark Strong) to Budapest for a meeting with a Communist general who may turn. The operation is botched, and in the fallout, Control and his associate Smiley (Gary Oldman) are fired from "The Circus" (the British secret information service). A year later, Smiley is asked by a high-up bureaucrat (Simon McBurney, Friends with Money) to investigate Control's theory that there is a mole in the service feeding information to the Russians.  Smiley is assisted by former co-worker Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock) and Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack, The Vicar of Dibley).

Meanwhile, there are other storylines going on. There's something called Operation Witchcraft, headed up by Smiley's former colleague Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) -- as a sidenote, I did love that at the end of the street where this operation is based, there's graffiti on a wall stating, "THE FUTURE IS FEMALE." Is this a shout out to the 1970s feminism movement? But back to the story -- there's also a scalphunter named Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy, Inception) on the run after falling for a Russian baddie's girlfriend in Istanbul.

Review: The Adventures of Tintin


Captain Haddock and Tintin in The Adventures of Tintin

When I was a kid, it was always a treat for us when my dad would check out a Tintin comic book from the library to share with my sister and me (yes, even in the '80s, Austin Public Library had Tintin books). The Belgian comic series by Hergé, about a "boy" reporter named Tintin, was action-packed, and populated with strange and funny characters. When I heard that these comics were being animated for film, I was excited about the prospect, and worried that the movie could not match up to the books.

Under the helm of Steven Spielberg, who had tried to grab the film rights to Tintin while Hergé was still alive, The Adventures of Tintin captures the essence and spirit of the comic, while hopefully introducing the series to many new fans. The film is 3D, although I am sure it would be just as pleasant to watch in 2D. The backdrops are vast and gorgeously-rendered. Through the film's use of motion-capture animation, the characters have been humanized, to an extent. Their overall look remains true to Hergé's original drawings (a Hergé-like figure even makes a cameo in the first scene).

Their Holiday Favorites: Jesse Trussell and the Magic of 'Fanny and Alexander'


still from Fanny and Alexander

Welcome to Their Holiday Favorites, a series in which members of the Austin film community tell us about movies they enjoy watching during the holiday season. This one is from Jesse Trussell, film programmer at Paramount Theatre.

My favorite holiday film has to be Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman. While not an obvious first choice, since only part of it is set at Christmastime, the film premiered on Swedish TV on Christmas Day 1982 and I can see why.

I don't think any film has better captured the magic (both joyful and terrifying) that childhood can contain, and for me that magic of childhood is exactly what the holidays are all about.

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