Elizabeth Stoddard's blog

Lone Star Cinema: All She Can

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Corina Calderon in All She Can

Benavides, a small town in south Texas, is the setting for the 2011 slice-of-life drama All She Can. Immigrants attempt passage over from Mexico, drug searches occur regularly at the high school, and senior Luz (Corina Calderon, End of Watch) worries she may be stuck. She hopes her weightlifting prowess can net her a scholarship to The University of Texas at Austin ... but this film doesn't follow the formula of your typical sports movie. Heck, All She Can doesn't really follow any typical formula at all.

The plot of this narrative feature seems anything but far-fetched. For instance, since her family has no internet access, Luz has to use a computer at the town library to Skype with her older brother JM (Jesse Medeles), who is stationed in Afghanistan. The military seems the only career path open to many of her peers. She's accepted into UT Austin, but her mom can't afford to co-sign any school loans. Her family is barely getting by, and Luz feels utterly limited by her lack of options.

Many other factors give All She Can a realistic feel, from the wardrobe to the low-key acting by the cast.  Even the lighting adds a natural touch, with nighttime scenes washed in a soft yellow as if from a sodium light. The predominantly Latino cast delivers a compelling story with familiar elements for most Americans.

Review: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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Idris Elba and Naomie Harris in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

"There is no time, only now." -- Winnie Mandela, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is an imperfect biopic about an imperfect hero. Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, HBO's The Wire) plays South African activist and revolutionary Nelson Mandela. The movie is based on Mandela's autobiography of the same title, published in 1995, so it only covers his life to that point -- which is still quite a fantastic spread.

The story starts with montages (this movie is quite heavy on the use of montages) of the statesman's rural childhood, then kicks into gear in 1942 Johannesburg where Mandela, as a young lawyer, becomes involved in the newly-formed African National Congress.  He marries, separates after infidelities and a harsh altercation with his wife, then meets and falls for Winnie (Naomie Harris, Skyfall). After some years of work with the ANC and leading the group in a more aggressive direction against the apartheid authority of his country, Mandela is imprisoned for 28 years. The film tries to stress Mandela's humanity, frailties and all, over the almost mythical figure celebrated in his later years. 

Review: Saving Mr. Banks

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Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks in Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks is "inspired" by the making of Walt Disney's effervescent classic musical Mary PoppinsEmma Thompson artfully plays the caustic creator of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, who flies out to Los Angeles to oversee the cinematic adaptation of her work.  Walt Disney (Tom Hanks in a mustache) has started work on the film without her full approval. Along with the songwriting Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and The Office's B.J. Novak) and storyboard artist Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), Disney hopes to convince Travers to sign over the film rights.

As we see Travers spout acerbic wit in later middle age, scenes from the Australian childhood of the author are depicted. Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Lone Ranger) play her troubled parents. Bank employee Travers Goff (Farrell) encourages the imagination of young daughter Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley as the young P.L. Travers, nee Helen Goff) while he depends on alcohol for his own escapism.  Mama Margaret (Wilson) is so beset with problems that she sleepwalks into a lake (IRL, this happened when the author was older and Mr. Goff already dead).

John Sayles Talks 'Matewan' at the Marchesa

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Chris Cooper in Matewan

As soon as I heard about the Austin Film Society's special screening of Matewan with director John Sayles in attendance, I purchased my ticket. I've made it a point to see as many Sayles movies as I can, since seeing my first (The Secret of Roan Inish) as a teenager.  Unfortunately, the quality of the Matewan DVD I rented a few years back was so awful that I couldn't watch more than 5 minutes of it -- the sound was terrible.  I couldn't pass up an opportunity to see the 35mm print at the Marchesa.

I spied the director's tall form in the Marchesa lobby, among the booths at the Blue Genie bazaar, before we were seated.  After being introduced to the audience, Sayles explained to us the correct pronunciation for the town in the title: MAYTE-one, not MATT-uh-won (which is how I'd been saying it, oops).  He then told us how he found the subject matter through discussions with miners who kept referring to the "Matewan massacre."

Paramount Theatre Celebrates its Centennial Cinematically

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projector2015 will be the 100th anniversary of Austin's Paramount Theatre... October 2015, to be exact. What better way to celebrate than with a special film series? Starting in January 2014, the Paramount100: A Century of Cinema series will chronologically screen a history of film. 

"As I began to think about how we could celebrate the classic film tradition at the Paramount, I realized this would be the perfect opportunity to present a chronological tribute to film history at the Paramount and Stateside Theatres," Stephen Jannise, film programmer for Paramount and Stateside, said in a press release about the series.

"With the screenings spaced out over a year and a half, we’ll be able to really dig into these silver screen classics and marvel at the steady progression of cinematic language, one landmark at a time. A once-in-a-lifetime celebration like the Paramount’s 100th birthday deserves a once-in-a-lifetime film series, and I can't wait to get started!"

The schedule for the first segment of the series, running January through May, hasn't been released yet, but badges for the full series are already available for purchase.  Some of the planned screenings include silent shorts to kick the series off, 35mm screenings of Chaplin's The Kid, Harold Lloyd's Safety Last, Nosferatu, Metropolis, and digital restorations of Intolerance and The Thief of Baghdad.

Holiday Favorites 2013: Heather Kafka Thinks 'It's a Wonderful Life'

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Karolyn Grimes and James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

It's a Wonderful Life is a popular pick this year! Austin actress Heather Kafka (Kid-Thing, Loves Her Gun) writes about what the 1946 film means to her.

"Is he sick?"
"No, worse, he's discouraged."

I remember walking into my parents' living room one day and an old movie was on. I don't remember how old I was but I do remember feeling like the TV was talking to me. I've tuned in every year since that day. It's a Wonderful Life never ever NEVER gets old. I feel and see something new in it every single time.

Sure, I could mention all the obvious things like the acting, the story, the comedy ... the swimming pool in the floor, the missing $8,000, ZuZu's petals ... Jimmy Stewart running through the town square shouting "Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!"

Holiday Favorites 2013: Lars Nilsen Has a Few

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Lee Marvin and John Wayne in Donovan's Reef

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Lars Nilsen (@thelarsnilsen), programmer for the Austin Film Society, can't pick just one holiday film:

I have to admit I'm not a giant Christmas fan. I've never been religious, so that whole side of the holiday escaped me and I grew up poor and poor kids have a much different experience of Christmas than well-off kids. I've never much cared for Christmas movies, music or anything. HOWEVER -- there are a few Christmas movies I really like a lot.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is of course one of the most popular holiday movies but I have never been able to suppress a thought that most people are watching it wrong, and that some of the people who would enjoy it most avoid it because they think it's some kind of saccharine Hallmark card. It's a work of art, filled with darkness, made by WWII veterans who had just looked down the cold, dark well of death and were in search of a reason to go on.

James Stewart, just back from Europe, was a highly decorated Colonel in the Army Air Corps and had flown scores of bombing missions. He was sick of the killing and the inhumanity and when he came back to Hollywood he planned to quit making movies. He didn't consider it a proper profession in light of everything he'd seen. Frank Capra convinced him otherwise and this movie is an exorcism of that bile and sorrow. It's not a film full of sunshine and light. People will often mention Capra and this movie and particular as the very picture of sentimentalism. That's exactly what it isn't. It is a movie that is full of rich emotions, but it's all deserved. It has been paid for.

Donovan's Reef (1963) (pictured at right) is a thousand miles away from It's a Wonderful Life, but it is also the work of a master (in this case John Ford) and it's a terrific Christmas movie. Except for a brief interval in snowy Boston it takes place in the South Pacific. John Wayne plays Donovan, who passes his time in his bamboo bar-room with his old war buddies who also decided not to go back to the mainland after the war.

Lone Star Cinema: Friday Night Lights

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Friday Night Lights poster

For this Thanksgiving week edition of Lone Star Cinema, I selected an influential football film from the mid-aughts. Before the acclaimed series Friday Night Lights started shooting in town, the 2004 film, starred Billy Bob Thornton as coach to a Texas high school football team. Based on the same-titled book by Buzz Bissinger, Friday Night Lights depicts the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, from the promising pre-season to their challenging finish at state.

The movie places quick scenes from the lives of several of the senior players in between montages of the Friday night action in Odessa's Ratliff Stadium. Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) plays Boobie Miles, an assured running back who is the team's star. I'd argue Luke gives the best performance in the movie. Midway through Friday Night Lights, his character faces an obstacle he may not be able to overcome, and Luke aptly conveys Boobie's bluster, might and heartbreak.

Quiet quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black, Sling Blade, Jarhead) finds it hard to engage in the game as his thoughts dwell on his uncertain academic future and the fate of his sickly mother. Billingsley, the fullback played by Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy), lives with an abusive drunk dad (country singer Tim McGraw) who was once on a Permian team that won the state championship. 

I wanted to know more about the backstories of younger player Comer -- the recently departed Lee Thompson Young (The Famous Jett Jackson) shows such promise here -- as well as stoic linebacker Ivory Christian (former UT player Lee Jackson) and safety Chavez (Jay Hernandez, spotted on ABC's Nashville). For a film that is practically two hours long, Friday Night Lights is relatively light on plot and spends much of its time on the field. I guess if I want to know more about the players, I'd have to read the book.

Review: Black Nativity

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Black Nativity posterKasi Lemmons, director of Eve's Bayou and Talk to Me, chose a play by poet Langston Hughes as the basis for her new movie. Black Nativity is first and foremost a musical, featuring original pieces of music as well as new arrangements of familiar hymns and carols. Lemmons even co-wrote some of the songs, with Raphael Saadiq producing the music (he shares the "Music by" credit with composer Laura Karpman).

The music is the best thing about Black Nativity. Without the songs it would likely be a far more disappointing movie, as you can see plot lines coming from a mile away. There are a couple times when a character says something that punches you in the gut with its earnestness, but otherwise the story is as ridiculous as it is predictable.

Langston, a fatherless kid from Baltimore played by young Jacob Latimore, is sent to live with grandparents he's never met. His rhyming narration kicks off the movie, and his singing voice has a light tone. Singer/Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson plays his financially-strapped mom who sings more often than she talks. Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker are the grandparents living in Harlem (and both of them sing in the movie!). Bassett's tentative alto harmonizes nicely with Hudson's more assured voice for a duet in "He Loves Me Still."

Tyrese Gibson (Baby Boy, Transformers) shows up as a gritty man Langston meets in NYC, and his performance of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" late in the film is simply beautiful. A homeless couple -- obvious Joseph and Mary stand-ins as soon as they appear onscreen -- are played by R&B singer Luke James and newcomer Grace GibsonMary J. Blige is an angelic figure with startlingly white hair, and Nas is... himself, I guess?

Holiday Favorites 2013: 'It's a Wonderful Life' for Samantha Rae Lopez

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Henry Travers and Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life

Here's the first of our 2013 Holiday Favorites (see 2011 and 2012), a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

We're starting off with this selection from Samantha Rae Lopez (@sraelopez), producer of short film The Book of Joe and program coordinator at Latinitas, a local organization working to empower young Latinas through usage of tech and media. Here are her thoughts on a Christmas favorite:

If you are a frequent Slackerwood reader, chances are you have some familiarity with Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life. If you haven't seen this film, stop what you're doing and find it on DVD, iTunes or Amazon streaming. Despite the fact that many would argue that this movie is an "American Christmas Classic," in reality the holiday itself is merely referenced and not crucial to the plot progression. Much like films such as Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black seems to love Christmas) and Trading Places, It's a Wonderful Life can also -- arguably -- fall into the "anti-Christmas movie" sub-genre.

George Bailey, played by a post-war James Stewart, is a small town business man with a strong stake in the town of Bedford Falls. When his business is held captive by the greedy Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), Bailey has suicidal thoughts which reach his guardian angel, Clarence (Henry Travers). Bailey is granted a rare glimpse at what the community would be like without him and gets a new found appreciation for everything he has worked for; his friends and family.

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