Caitlin Moore's blog

Review: The Great Beauty

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the great beauty

With a sprawling and often dreamlike narrative that examines grand themes of life, death and art, The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) is novelistic in its storytelling and enthrallingly ambitious. 

Directed and written by Paolo SorrentinoThe Great Beauty was Italy's submission for this year's Best Foreign Film Academy Award and it has made the cut to compete for the Oscar alongside four other films. Mirroring the scope of other lofty Italian films (Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita certainly come to mind) as well as the work of revered writers like Marcel Proust, Sorrentino is passionate and audacious in his approach to a story that is classically familiar in its basic framework and often surprising as well. 

At the story's center is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). He wrote a moderately successful novel as a young man, and following that chose to veer into a life of partying, carousing with beautiful people and rarely making it to bed before dawn. As the film opens he has just turned 65, and after hearing some painful news that reminds him of his younger days and the great love he lost, this well-dressed, smarter-than-average socialite is beginning to tire a bit.

Review: The Past

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the past film posterThe Past opens with an airport arrival scene. A woman  -- she seems happy but anxious -- waits for a man, who emerges into view calm and alone. They greet each other familiarly but with an underlying hesitance, and over the next few minutes exchange sparse, direct words as they hurry to the car through a sudden downpour and proceed to their next destination. 

Because minimal background details are offered in these beginning moments (and fed out very conservatively over the rest of the film) the story immediately feels like a puzzle, and the initial basic questions -- who are these people? where are they going? -- soon make way for much more serious mysteries to unfold.

The plot that writer/director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) does eventually reveal is at first somewhat mundane in its modern glumness. Ahmad (played impressively and stoically by Ali Mosaffa) has returned to France from his home country of Iran to settle the details of a divorce. Four years earlier he left his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo) and her two daughters, whom he had helped to raise. 

The marriage didn't end too dramatically and everyone is civil enough, but whispers of unfinished business and repressed feelings fuss just below the surface of every interaction. Closure, if such a thing is possible, has certainly not been achieved, and everyone accepts this transitional and often awkward reality as simply the way things are. 

Realistic in its complicated portrayals of domesticity and relationships and deliberately paced, it's a surprise when the "normal" problems introduced at the beginning of The Past advance to more salacious matters involving jealousy, adultery, email spying and suicide. Without giving away too much, Marie's angsty teenage daughter plays a pivotal role, as does Marie's new lover and his troubled young son.

The Past requires room to breathe and time to find its way towards the larger truth ultimately at the heart of the story, and though it's a demanding experience it's not an unrewarding one. Consistently solid acting (even the young children strike all the right heartbreaking notes) and a narrative that explores the tough and gritty aspects of human tragedy make this a fine, haunting film.

AFS Preview: Richard Linklater Programs 'Jewels in the Wasteland'

king of comedy still

This week marks the beginning of a film event that will no doubt turn out to be of lasting importance to many Austin movie lovers and the local film scene in general. The city's own Richard Linklater (if you're reading Slackerwood he needs no introduction) will begin presenting a series of films from the early 80s that, for various reasons, impacted him both as an appreciator and creator of independent cinema.

"Jewels in the Wasteland: A Trip Through '80s Cinema with Richard Linklater" begins Wednesday and is set to continue through May. The first five films have been announced so far, and aside from the time they were released ('81, '82 or '83), they seem to have little in common. That's the best part. This isn't a series simply curated by Linklater; he'll actually be on hand after each screening and will sit down for a conversation with Austin Film Society Programmer Lars Nilsen to discuss the whys and hows of that night's selection. 

"What makes this such a momentous series to me is that we all get to share the simple joy of talking about movies with Rick," Lars told me in a email. 

Take a look at the initial lineup below and don't wait too long to get your tickets; if the Austin film community is paying attention, these screenings should all be well attended. 

Ready, Set, Fund: 'The Father,' 'Arvind' and More

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the father

Ready, Set, Fund is a column about crowdfunding and fundraising endeavors related to Austin and Texas independent film projects. 

Debbie (that lucky gal) is busy covering Sundance and Slamdance this month, so in her place I'll be taking a look at some of the Austin-related crowdfunding projects currently reaching for their goals. 

First, speaking of Sundance and crowdfunding, this year 20 Kickstarter-funded features, shorts and documentaries will be featured at the festival. According to Kickstarter, this is the third year in a row that over 10 percent of the festival lineup has been made up of Kickstarted projects and several, including this year's Academy award-nominated The Square, have gone on to much success. And that doesn't count any projects that used other crowdfunding site, like Indiegogo.

Debbie will be discussing a few local crowdfunded Sundance players, including official 2014 selection No No: A Dockumentary, in the coming days.

Now, here's a look at a few Austin and Texas projects currently seeking funds for completion:

  • The Father -- This "throwback '80s sci-fi film" directed by Austinite Stephen Belyeu (Dig) tells the story of an extraterrestrial father and son who have crash-landed on Earth (pictured above). Filmmakers are seeking funding specifically to assist with creating the practical special effects for the movie, and hope to reach their goal in time to shoot during the short-lived Texas winter. (Kickstarter, ends Jan. 26)

AFS Essential Cinema: Russian Films of the Past Two Decades

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still from Russian Ark

The tumultuous and dangerous political atmosphere that defined 20th-century life in the Soviet Union made it difficult for Russian artists to reach their potential, and it wasn't until the dissolution of the USSR that expressing creative freedom at home became a real possibility.

Beginning in January, Austin Film Society will present a series of movies that reveal the pent-up talent and emotion of six different Russian directors working at a time when they were finally free to analyze and critique Mother Russia and its people. All released in the last 20 years, the eight films of "Pushing the Curtain Aside: Russian Films of the Past Two Decades" portray a range of styles and subjects but share a dedication to originality.

Screenings all take place Thursdays at 7:30 pm at the Marchesa. Go here for more information about screenings and tickets, and take a look at the lineup below.

Holiday Favorites 2013: Holly Herrick Chooses 'The Silver Skates'

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hans brinker coverWelcome 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.

Today's inspired choice comes from Austin Film Society Associate Artistic Director Holly Herrick. Her pick is a classic from 1962: Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color presents Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates: Part 1 and Part 2, directed by Norman Foster. "AKA, the only time I will ever prefer Disney to Sidney Lumet," Holly says. Here's why she loves this one so:

On Christmas Eve every year, after our traditional holiday dinner of hominy grits and homemade sausage served with King corn syrup, my brothers and sisters and I dig out an old re-recorded VHS tape from sometime in the early 80s of the 1962 Disney's Wonderful World of Color version of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. The film is an adaptation of a popular 1865 novel depicting Netherlands life in the early 19th century, focusing on the children of a working class Dutch family who dream of winning a speed skating contest.

Sidney Lumet was the first to adapt this story for the American television audience in 1958 through the long-running anthology series presented on NBC by Hallmark, Hallmark's Hall of Fame. Lumet's Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates became the most viewed Hallmark Hall of Fame episode to date, and I can only imagine that the Disney produced version was in part a business reaction to the popularity of Lumet's musical, which starred Hollywood leading man Tab Hunter in the title role, opposite singer and starlet Peggy King.

While the Lumet musical is definitely worth watching (particularly for Lumet die-hards who will appreciate things like a John Fiegler cameo), I prefer the Wonderful World of Color version by early talkies-actor-turned-TV-director Norman Foster. Foster's Hans Brinker is not a musical, and it is shot on location in the Netherlands and in Sweden (rather than in a studio in Brooklyn like the Lumet version). It is a mostly Scandinavian production, featuring an all-Scandinavian cast reciting English dialogue.

Review: The Broken Circle Breakdown

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broken circle breakdown movie posterIf you stop to absorb the lyrics of most bluegrass songs, you’ll find they’re not just sad, they’re heart, gut and soul-wrenching. This gives you an idea of what to expect from The Broken Circle Breakdown, a romantic drama that uses bluegrass music to frame its characters' tumultuous lives.

Directed by Felix van Groeningen, The Broken Circle Breakdown follows two young creatives, Elise and Didier, as they meet, fall in love, play in a band together and soon enough end up married and parents to a little girl. As life continues to throw surprises at them, they find the strength to keep going in different ways.

Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh play the leads, and each brings great charisma and energy to the screen. Physically tiny compared to Heldenbergh's towering, banjo-playing figure, Baetens exudes passion and heart as Elise, an impulsive tattoo artist with a lovely singing voice and superstitious leanings. Heldenbergh is alternately gruff and warm as Didier, Elise's atheistic counterpart who is defined by his deep love for American culture and deep hate for its politics. 

The two have sharply different views when it comes to religion, philosophy, and just about everything else, but their chemistry and love for their daughter make them a believable couple who you hope finds their way towards happiness.

But just like in a bluegrass song, happiness is hard to come by. When Elise and Didier's daughter Maybelle becomes sick with leukemia, they are forced to watch helplessly as medicine, luck and their own bond as a couple all begin to fail. Maybelle, played by the extraordinary Nell Cattrysse, is the star that guides these two, and when her light begins to fade they are both at a loss. 

Awards Watch: Texas Filmmakers Up for Independent Spirit Awards

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computer chess still

It was another busy year for Texas filmmakers, and it looks like their hard work will once again be recognized with awards. Last week the 29th annual Film Independent Spirit Awards nominations were announced, and Austin and Texas-connected productions including Mud, Upstream Color, Computer Chess and Before Midnight are in the running in a variety of categories.

Up for Best Director you'll find Austinite Jeff Nichols (who participated in a featured panel at Austin Film Festival last October), nominated for Mud, and Shane Carruth, director of the Dallas-filmed Upstream ColorMud (Holly Herrick's review) will also receive the Robert Altman award, which recognizes one film for its director, casting director and ensemble cast. Upstream Color (J.C.'s review) was nominated for Carruth and fellow Texan David Lowery's editing work, as well. 

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

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dallas buyers club posterDallas Buyers Club has all the hooks you'd expect to find in a film released during prime awards-angling season. A couple of big stars, a David and Goliath story based on true events, a topic that will inspire moral outrage, and as you've probably heard, major physical transformations from not one but two actors involved. 

The cynical part of me went in fearing heavy-handedness and emotional exploitation, but I was relieved to find that director Jean-Marc Vallee largely steers clear of over-sentimentality. Instead he simply tells the story of a flawed rebel searching for dignity in a terrifying situation, and though a little too glossy at times, the movie satisfies in many ways and is bound to capture a golden statue or two.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a swaggering Dallas electrician/rodeo cowboy who is diagnosed with HIV so advanced that he's told he has a mere 30 days to live. The stigma that this is a gay man's disease, especially common in 1985 (when the story is set), riles homophobic Ron as much as the health implications. He soon discovers what he really needs to be angry about, though; there are no promising medications available for Ron and others like him, and the American system operates as if it truly doesn't care about people with HIV and AIDS.

With his life at stake and an entire federal framework that he feels needs to be corrected, Ron diverts his rage into travel and research and searches for alternative options. Never the law-abiding type, he soon creates a buyers club, a setup that skirts the bounds of illegality by selling memberships rather than pills. Once dues are paid, members receive an array of drugs, vitamins and supplements (mostly acquired from a progressive doctor in Mexico) that are not yet approved by the FDA. As the leader of this club, Ron satisfies his desire for both control and adventure -- he will not sit idly by as his body and health deteriorate. 

McConaughey is enthralling as the womanizing cowboy turned AIDS-rights activist. The role allows him to strut, connive, charm and storytell using the precisely channeled charisma he's known for, and his fiery presence (made only more searing by yes, his remarkably gaunt figure) is the beating heart of the film. Though you never forget you're looking at a dying man, McConaughey infuses his performance with sparks of crackling energy. 

AFF Review: Hellaware

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hellaware posterWritten and directed by University of Texas graduate Michael Bilandic (who we interviewed before Austin Film Festival began), Hellaware is a playful modern morality tale that explores the ups and downs a young photographer experiences while trying to make himself a part of the New York art scene.

Hellaware stars Keith Poulson (Somebody Up There Likes Me) as Nate, a slacker with abstract dreams of fame and just a few vague ideas about how to actually achieve it. After his girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil) dumps him to be with the pigtail-wearing Brooklyn artist of the moment, he descends into a downward spiral of self-pity and complaints. One night while attempting to mute his sorrows with booze, drugs and the internet, Nate and his friends (played by Sophia Takal and Duane C. Wallace) stumble across something on YouTube that is mesmerizing in its repulsiveness.

An absurd rap/rock video made by an Insane Clown Posse-type group (they're called the Young Torture Killers) captures Nate's attention, and before he knows it he's setting off to Delaware to track down a bunch of violence-obsessed teenagers with a taste for purple drank. Nate looks down on the group (he thinks they are backwards and terrible musicians), but is also intrigued by their authenticity. These audacious kids are different from the pretentious wannabe-artists he's surrounded by, and ultimately he hopes to capitalize on their rawness to his own advantage -- ideally in the form of a photography show that will jumpstart his career. 

What follows is an arrangement where Nate takes what he wants from his subjects (exploitative photos they haven't given permission to use), and then a sleazy art gallery owner in turn takes advantage of Nate. Talk of truth and beauty goes out the window when money and notoriety beckon, and soon enough everyone starts to show their ugly sides as tempers flare, friendships tangle, and egos get really, really big.

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