New Releases

Review: Nymphomaniac: Vol. II

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Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2

My review of Nymphomaniac: Vol. I can be found here. Both volumes are now playing locally at the Violet Crown Cinema and are also available to rent through cable & digital VOD providers, including iTunes. 

While the first installment of Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac focused on Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) graphically retelling the stories of her sexual history as a young woman to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), Nymphomaniac: Vol. II shifts to her adulthood. She's on an endless quest to recreate the enormity of feeling from a spontaneous orgasm she once experienced as a pre-teen, but as the story picks back up, we're at a stage where she basically has lost all sexual desire and, even worse, any pleasure from having sex. Joe has gone numb and can no longer have an orgasm, a loss that nearly destroys her ability to function. She goes on a quest to "rehabilitate her sexuality" and finds that her desires run much darker than she'd ever realized. 

By now she has married Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) and they have a son. Her maternal instinct is strong, but her instatiable carnal needs are stronger. Jerome encourages her to take lovers, but she's not particularly interested in a traditional affair. She begins to see K (Jamie Bell) and enters into a deeply disturbing BDSM relationship with him where she gets off by being punched in the face and beaten with a leather riding crop while being tied down to a couch. There were a few moments during these scenes that made me flinch and much like Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, there will be some audience members who cannot abide the sexual violence.

Review: Le Week-End

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le weekend posterPart romantic caper-comedy, part brutal exploration of a 30-year marriage, Le Week-End uses an endearing sense of mischief to balance life's satisfying highs and crushing lows.

The film stars Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent as Meg and Nick, a British couple celebrating their anniversary in Paris, the site of their honeymoon decades earlier. Though their children are now adults and they should be approaching those golden years of retirement and relaxation, both are wrecked with uncertainty and worry about money, aging and who they are -- in their own eyes and in the eyes of the other. 

Nick has grown clingy around Meg and fears being alone. He's also been keeping a secret from her about the state of his career and seems to be on the verge of a full-on existential crisis. Not too far off, Meg is filled with dissatisfaction but doesn't know what to do to make herself happy. They are quite the pair of overthinkers, and it's clear that taking a weekend out of town together is a risky maneuver unlikely to solve anything. 

Where traditional romantic comedies tend to gloss over the tougher parts of long-term relationships (if they depict them at all), Le Week-End faces the sad, awkward stuff head-on. But while there are several intense Celine and Jesse moments between Nick and Meg, these sometimes melancholy lovers are often pretty Frances Ha-ish, too. They argue, sure, but they're also comfortably playful, affectionate and adorably silly with each other.  

Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, The Mother) shows off the gorgeous and charming parts of Paris but hints at the dirty little secret of typical Hollywood movies: Real people can't actually afford the romantic experience so often depicted onscreen. If Nick and Meg want to stay in a hotel with a stellar view, shop for fine clothes and eat incredible meals, frugal realism must be casually ignored and their material adventures will need to be charged on the credit card. 

Review: Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

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NymphomaniacPoster

Lars Von Trier's sexually explicit epic has been edited into two different versions. There is a 4-hour "international" version (which is what Magnolia is currently releasing here in the U.S.), split into two halves for distribution around the world. A 5.5-hour "hardcore" version contains even more exposition and explicit footage. While it's hard to imagine that the hardcore version would ever see the light of day in America, Magnolia has stated that they'll eventually release it domestically, although that may be exclusive to home video.

Despite its occasionally explicit nature, anybody who is familiar with Von Trier's work will not be surprised to know that the film is not at all sexy. If Nymphomaniac had been submitted for a rating, the movie would certainly have earned an NC-17, but I suspect that if two or three brief shots of penetration and/or oral sex had been removed that it could have earned an R. I was not shocked in the least, even when I occasionally felt that I was being prodded to be shocked. 

For most audiences, even the 4-hour version will push boundaries too far, but perhaps it is a little more palatable when the story is split up into two installments. Both sections are available to rent on VOD now, but if you want to see what the fuss is all about on the big screen, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I is hitting Austin this weekend. It's difficult to asses Von Trier's work when you've only seen half of it, but Volume I is well acted and highly compelling.

Review: Teenage

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still from Teenage

Filmmaker Matt Wolf's Teenage, a glossy video collage about the growth of youth culture in the early to mid-20th century, is inspired by author Jon Savage's Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, 1875-1945.  Austin Film Society hosted a screening of the film (with Wolf in attendance) last August, but Teenage returns to Austin this weekend for a theatrical run.

Opening in 1904, scenes of children at factories are shown as narrators explain how child-labor laws led to further schooling for kids. Jena Malone (Contact, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Ben Whishaw (Bright Star, Skyfall) are two of the four voices who speak from a specific point of view.

Amid the vintage photos and footage are live-action sequences -- with color adjustments and added graininess to blend in with the older stock -- used to illustrate singular stories representing significant movements. These silent scenes, scored with ambient music and narrated by the four speakers, make Teenage appear less revolutionary and more like something you might find on PBS's American Experience. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but it’s not as original a project as the movie wants to be.

Review: Tim's Vermeer

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 Tim's Vermeer

I'm somewhat embarrased to admit that I never took an art history course in college. My knowledge and awareness of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer even more embarrasingly begins and ends with Scarlett Johansson portraying the young woman who is the subject of Vermeer's painting in Girl with a Pearl Earring. I felt slightly more knowledgable after watching the documentary Tim's Vermeer, directed by Teller of the comedy/illusionist duo Penn and Teller, which opens in Austin today.

If you take a look at Vermeer's work, it's easy to be struck by how realistic his paintings are. Hundreds of years before photographs, he captures light and his subjects in a way that leaps off the canvas almost as if it's a video image. That's how Tim Jenison sees these classic paintings and, over the years, it has started to become a bit of an obsession. Tim is an internet streaming video pioneer and inventor who lives down the road in San Antonio. He founded a company called NewTek that has developed extensive tools for 3D modeling and animation. That may partially explain his eye for detail, but Tim's Vermeer  shows us just how deep his curiosity about Vermeer's painting technique runs. 

Review: Divergent

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DivergentIn a dystopian future ruled by an authoritarian government, a young female protagonist with special skills must make personal sacrifices and overcome incredible odds in order to protect her family. That may sound like a plot synopsis for The Hunger Games, but it is equally applicable to this week's release from director Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist). Based on the young adult novel by Veronica Roth, the movie Divergent was scripted by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones).

Set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, the society of Divergent is organized into five factions who each perform their own important functions, such as labor, government and military, based on personality type. On the eve of adulthood, teens are given an aptitude test to help them determine which faction will be the best fit for them, and they must then choose their permanent assignment.

Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) stars as Beatrice "Tris" Prior, who learns when she takes her test that she is a rare Divergent, someone who is equally suited to more than one faction, with the gift of creative thought -- and therefore a threat to the established regime. Forced to hide this knowledge as exposure would mean certain death, Tris must choose her faction and do her best to avoid making waves, a task that appears impossible when technology is in use that can display one's very thoughts on screen.

Tris receives help from Four (Theo James), assigned to train new members of the faction. Kate Winslet stars as Jeanine Matthews, the mysterious and dangerous figure who more than anything wants to see Divergents captured and killed.

Even with the formulaic setup I found myself somewhat caught up in the story, which consists largely of Tris's struggles to complete training for her chosen faction, Dauntless, the fearless military protectors of the city. These sequences take the audience on a tour of striking visuals through the ruins of Chicago, including training grounds in an abandoned amusement park, a great wall and fence hundreds of feet high that surround the city (though we never see the reason for the fence), and into the stone quarry where the Dauntless make their home.

Review: Bad Words

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I've never been the best speller. I often to this day find myself getting tripped up on simple words like "believe," "suburb" and "receive" (that "I before E" rule, man!). When I first saw the trailer for Bad Words, it wasn't the premise of a 40-year-old man competing in grade school spelling bees that interested me, though. It was the fact that lead actor and director Jason Bateman was a total jerk in the preview.

Those who know Bateman are probably most familiar with his role as the lovable, slightly arrogant Michael Bluth, oldest brother in the Bluth family on the television series Arrested Development. His role in this film as Guy Trilby is far from Michael Bluth.  

Interview: Wes Anderson, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

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Wes Anderson of Grand Budapest HotelThe University of Texas at Austin alum Wes Anderson returned to his home state this month for the premiere of his latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival (Don's review). This adventurous story recounted by the elder Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) spans several decades and stars colorful characters including lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), who accompanies legendary concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) in a battle for a priceless painting.

Recurring Anderson ensemble cast members are liberally planted throughout this entertaining and often exotic film, including Tilda Swinton as a wealthy lover of M. Gustave, Adrien Brody as her money-grubbing relative Dmitri, Edward Norton as the police captain Henckels hot in pursuit, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman as fellow members of the clandestine fraternal order "The Society of the Crossed Keys."

I joined fellow film critics for a roundtable interview with Anderson while he was in Austin last week. We spoke at length about the production of The Grand Budapest Hotel as well as his personal influences. His unconventional production process lends to the lavishly complex style of his projects including this entertaining film.

Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

I wish I could say that on the heels of his masterful Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson has outdone himself with The Grand Budapest Hotel. But he hasn't. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a bad movie. It's just not a great Wes Anderson movie.

Set in a fictional European country just before World War II, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the story of Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), a prim and elegant concierge at an equally prim and elegant luxury hotel, and his faithful friend Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), a lobby boy who tells the story many years later in flashback. (F. Murray Abraham plays the elderly Zero.)

When Gustave isn't busy catering to the hotel clientele and barking orders at his staff, he finds the time to seduce as many female hotel guests as possible, including the dowager Madame D. (Tilda Swinton). Their liaison spans years; when Madame D. dies, she leaves Gustave a priceless Renaissance painting.

Review: Veronica Mars

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Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III, and Tina Majorino in Veronica Mars

A long time ago, or so it seems to fans of the show, teen detective drama Veronica Mars was cancelled. Since its somewhat abrupt end, the series has grown a larger cult following through people introduced to the show via subscribed streaming services (raises hand) or DVD sets borrowed from friends (the case for my sister). The question high on the mind of these dedicated watchers: When will we get a movie?

Thanks to a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, this weekend the film is being released. Veronica Mars will simultaneously open in select theatres at the same time that digital copies are available for purchase. The film, from Austin director/showrunner Rob Thomas, will be the first to be released in such a fashion. It is apt that this film, funded partially through new media, be the selected title to test this out.

Guided by the exuberant response from fans, Thomas included familiar faces we know and love in the cast, led by Kristen Bell in her lead role as Veronica.  It has been 10 years since she graduated from Neptune High. Veronica has moved to NYC to complete law school and hook up again with college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell), who now works in public radio with Ira Glass (of course he does!). Former love Logan (Jason Dohring) calls her back to her California hometown to help him fight a murder rap.

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