New Releases

Review: Blue Is the Warmest Color

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Every so often, a film comes along that gains a reputation. Maybe it's because it has graphic sex scenes or intense violence. Maybe the subject matter is something most audiences consider taboo. The stories often get swept under the rug, sadly -- or the movies are just watched to see what all of the hype is about instead of paying attention to the story. But these are the films that usually have the most substance, as they tell a story that truly captures us as humans. Blue Is the Warmest Color is one of these films.

I can't recall the last time a romance on film captivated me as much as this one. So many movies have been made about relationships of every kind, but rarely do you find one that contains all of the microscopic moments that make up a romance. It can be a glance, or the way a person holds someone's hand, or even just the way they reference the person they love. Director Abdellatif Kechiche has done that so beautifully in this film that it's making me scratch my head and thumb through my "Directing Actors 101" books.

The story follows Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a junior in high school struggling through the pressures of dating and sexuality. Realizing she is not attracted to boys like the rest of her friends, she finally accepts this fact after she meets Emma (Léa Seaydoux). Emma is unlike anyone Adèle has met before; she is a painter, a philosopher, a mentor and ultimately a lover. The bond these two women share is unlike any other, reminiscent of those tumultuous relationships many of us have been through at some point in our lives.

One of the complaints I have heard about Blue Is the Warmest Color is that its running time is too long (179 minutes). Sure, three hours is a stretch for a film; I couldn't get through Django Unchained without a bathroom break. But this movie hooked me, leaving me wanting to know what was going to happen next with these two. A film about a relationship sounds uneventful to most people, but Kechiche perfectly captures both the joyous new elements of budding love all the way down to the gritty, exposed parts. Three hours actually didn't seem like enough time.

Review: 12 Years a Slave

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Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

"Survival's... about keeping your head down."
"I don't want to survive, I wanna live."

I sincerely hope that 2013 is the break-out year for Chiwetel Ejiofor, when he gets the attention from filmgoers (and filmmakers) he so deserves.  With his phenomenal, determined performance as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's film 12 Years a Slave (and his part in the upcoming dramatization of Half of a Yellow Sun), it could happen!

If, like Jette, you read Northup's biography/slave narrative in school, you're familiar with the story. Northup was a free man of color in mid-19th Century Saratoga, NY, lovingly caring for his wife and two young children and playing the fiddle for parties in the region. Taken in by con men while his family is away, Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery under another name. He is beaten, threatened, denigrated and tortured during his dozen years as a slave to a couple of plantation owners.

Denial of identity is a major theme of 12 Years a Slave. Upon landing in New Orleans after a horrific steamboat ride, the slave auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) calls Northup by the name of Platt. Captured woman Eliza (Adepero Oduye, Pariah) still calls him Solomon, but once she is gone we see Northup giving in to his renaming. Hope remains that he will be found and taken out of slavery, but as Platt he can't keep straining against the forces holding him down. The last embers of a letter he wanted to send home (and cannot) glow and fade onscreen. When his name -- and the freedom it represents -- is finally returned to him, Ejiofor exhibits Northup's deep relief and joy, lessened only by knowing he cannot help the others left behind.

Review: The Counselor

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The CounselorThe Counselor is dirty, very very dirty, sexy-dirty. Beginning with Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz in bed, to Cameron Diaz being as carnally, carnivorously slutty as you've never seen her before to Javier Bardem's jaw-dropping monologue describing a night with her, this is a pressure cooker of a film, exploding with steam.

It's also a bemusing piece that challenges actors to play a little outside their established roles. Brad Pitt is not the hero but a little bit of a coward, Fassbender's character is directionless, entirely at a loss for what he should do ... and how often is Javier Bardem a sympathetic good guy?

Writer Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) is at home in west Texas, but director Ridley Scott makes El Paso look a little more glamorous and busy than it really is. (Only pick-up footage was actually shot there, though.)

The story involves Fassbender, credited only as "Counselor" and never called by name, an attorney who has gotten into debt to a criminal element and goes into business with Reiner (Bardem) and Westray (Pitt) in the hopes of making millions selling drugs through a club he and Reiner plan to open.  In a murky plot that becomes only slightly more clear by the end, a third party arranges to kill a key player and steal the drug shipment, leaving Counselor holding the bag.

It is clear that, like the actors, McCarthy was trying to stretch himself and achieve something great with The Counselor. He succeeded, at least, in creating something remarkably unique. Rambling philosophical diatribes from supporting actors create a thoughtful mood but don't ultimately have a clear meaning, their delivery at times reminiscent of David Carradine's lines in Kill Bill.

In spite of the death of his brother and producing partner Tony mid-shoot, Ridley Scott has done a great job assembling a phenomenal cast and directing a noteworthy film that will be worth revisiting and may perhaps gain some cult status.  

Review: Shepard & Dark

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Shepard and Dark Still Photo

As much as I'd admired Sam Shepard as an actor for decades, I was not familiar with his writing until I read a collection of his short stories, Cruising Paradise. This anthology of 40 short tales written between 1989 and 1995, set mostly in remote reaches of the U.S. and Mexico, depicts the loneliness of a man who grew up in with familial discord brought on by alcoholism. Some of the stories are fictional, but several come straight from Shepard's personal diary.

The poignant documentary Shepard & Dark by filmmaker and part-time Austinite Treva Wurmfeld reveals even more of the life and loves of Shepard, told through both personal interviews and archival footage and letters exchanged between himself and Johnny Dark. The pair met in the Sixties during an off-off Broadway play in Greenwich Village that Shepard had written. One playwright from California, the other an odd-jobber from Jersey City, talked about their childhood of airplanes and dogs and found a connection when they shared stories of their fathers.

Review: Wadjda

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Wadjda

I'm guessing many women reading this review can remember learning to ride a bicycle -- getting the training wheels off, or refusing to have them in the first place, perhaps having someone hold the back of the seat and run behind you ... and that glorious moment when you achieve solo cycling.

In the movie Wadjda, the title character is a girl who wants to own and ride a bike in a society where such an activity is considered inappropriate for females. An event most of us take for granted becomes subversive, and the simple story of the film takes on many layers. It's remarkably fascinating, primarily due to its contemporary Saudi Arabia setting.

The basic premise of the story -- Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) wants the bicycle for sale at the nearby toy store, and will do anything she can to earn the money for it -- is enhanced by the other women in the ten-year-old character's life. Filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour has taken a situation that many of us can identify with, and uses it to show us the shape of women's lives in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda's mother (Reem Abdullah) is consumed with fear that her husband will leave them and marry a woman who can give him a son. The schoolmistress at Wadjda's school, Ms. Hussa (Ahd), is continually finding fault with the girl who simply will not take pains to be appropriately ladylike.

Review: Muscle Shoals

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Muscle Shoals

It's been a stellar year for music documentaries. Twenty Feet From Stardom, A Band Called Death and Sound City have all managed to tell important stories and still be crowd-pleasing films. Much like Dave Grohl's warm and friendly portrait of the Sound City studios out in Southern California, the movie Muscle Shoals invites us to take a closer look at a studio where some of the most important recordings of all time have been created. 

Rick Hall opened FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1960 after establishing a music publishing business. With a life-altering personal tragedy behind him, he focused all of his energy into the studio and truly got hooked by producing local and regional artists. Shortly after Percy Sledge recorded "When A Man Loves A Woman" at FAME in 1966, the floodgates opened and the studio become a destination for Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records to bring his artists to ensure they'd have hit singles.

Review: Machete Kills

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Machete Kills

If I had to pick one bright new talent this year, it would be Carlos Estevez.

As the boozing, gun-worshipping, horndogging President Rathcock in Machete Kills, Estevez delivers a powerhouse performance destined to carry him -- a first-time actor whose face is oddly familiar -- to the heights of stardom.

Oh, wait -- IMDb says Carlos Estevez is, in fact, Charlie Sheen. No wonder I'd seen him before. But whatever his name, his performance is ... well, no. I led you astray, gentle Machete fans. To be honest, his performance isn't all that great. It's not awful, and at times it's entertaining and funny. But it's nothing special.

In other words, Estevez/Sheen's performance is like everything else in Machete Kills -- more meh than memorable.

In Robert Rodriguez's follow-up to Machete, President Rathcock recruits the titular ex-Federale (Danny Trejo) to slip into Mexico to take down crazed revolutionary arms dealer Mendez (Demian Bichir). With help from a fellow agent posing as Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard), Machete crosses the border and finds his quarry quickly -- but only after a rather violent encounter in a Mexican cathouse with wicked madam Desdemona (Sofía Vergara) and a bevy of heavily armed hookers.

Fantastic Fest Review: The Zero Theorem

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The Zero Theorem

The best things I can say about The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam's latest movie, are that first of all, it broke my streak of disappointment with Gilliam films at Fantastic Fest (Tideland in 2006, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus in 2009); and second of all, that it stuck with me vividly for days afterward. The worst things I could say are that it stuck with me in a downbeat, oppressive sort of way (although that might just have been my mood) and that it revisits many themes from Brazil without being nearly as good as that movie.

But that's something you have to deal with when you watch Gilliam's films: They are not going to be Brazil. It's like expecting Chimes at Midnight to be Citizen Kane -- you can't think that way. It's difficult to consider The Zero Theorem all on its own because you might experience delighted relief that it's better than the filmmaker's most recent three movies, but then you have to put the measuring stick away and enjoy the film on its own merits.

And there's a lot to enjoy in The Zero Theorem, starting with Christoph Waltz in the lead at Qohen Leth. It's clear right away that Qohen isn't the most mentally stable individual -- and you wouldn't want to deal with him in real life. He's fixated on his chronic illnesses, and on awaiting a mysterious phone call. In the meantime, he works as a programmer of sorts, with phenomenal speed. All he wants is to be allowed to stay away from the crazy office environment and work quietly from home while he anticipates his call.

Join Me for 'After Tiller' Discussion This Weekend

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After Tiller posterThe Austin Film Society and Violet Crown Cinema are teaming up for a post-screening Q&A about the documentary After Tiller on Saturday evening -- and I will be moderating the panel. I'm looking forward to this and hope you'll join us. The info from AFS is below, and you can get tickets now on the Violet Crown Cinema website. Please read Caitlin's review to find out more about the film.

After Tiller, the award-winning documentary about late-term abortion doctors that premiered at Sundance in January, will screen with a special Q&A and discussion this Saturday at the 6:20 pm screening at Violet Crown Cinema, presented by the Austin Film Society and moderated by Slackerwood editor Jette Kernion. The Q&A will feature Dr. Lee Carhart, one of the doctors featured in the film, and Texas Tribune Editor Emily Ramshaw, who closely covered the passing of House Bill 2 in the Texas Legislature this summer. Dr. Carhart will be joining via Skype from Nebraska.

About the film:
After Tiller is a thought-provoking and compassionate documentary that intimately explores the highly controversial subject of third-trimester abortions in the wake of the 2009 assassination of practitioner Dr. George Tiller. The procedure is now performed by only four doctors in the United States, all former colleagues of Dr. Tiller, who risk their lives every day in the name of their unwavering commitment towards their patients.

After Tiller opens at Violet Crown Cinema on Friday, October 11.

About the speakers:
Emily Ramshaw is the editor of The Texas Tribune. She oversees the Trib’s editorial operations, from daily coverage to major projects. Previously, she spent six years reporting for The Dallas Morning News, first in Dallas, then in Austin. In April 2009 she was named "Star Reporter of the Year" by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Headliners Foundation of Texas.

Dr. Lee Carhart is a OB-GYN physician who practices in Omaha. He is featured in After Tiller as one of the four doctors in the US practicing third-trimester abortions.

Jette Kernion is a writer and the founder and editor of Slackerwood. She is a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and the current president of the Austin Film Critics Association.

Review: After Tiller

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after tillerThere are four doctors in the United States who openly and legally perform third-trimester abortions. They arrived at their positions not with long-standing intention, but rather due to chance and a stubborn sense of duty -- both to women and to murdered abortion doctor George Tiller. 

Tiller performed late-term abortions at his Wichita, Kansas women's health clinic for decades before he was fatally shot by an anti-choice activist in 2009. Though long the target of serious violence (Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993 and his clinic was firebombed in 1986) and also accused of criminal behavior (he was ultimately found not guilty), Tiller never abandoned his simple personal precept: "Women need abortions and I'm going to do them."

After Tiller, the humanistic documentary directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, avoids discussing abortion from a political point of view and is not a tribute to the late Kansas physician. Instead, the film focuses on Drs. LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella -- former colleagues and friends of Tiller who have pledged to continue Tiller's mission to meet the needs of a very small group of women. 

Late-term abortions account for less than 1% of all abortions performed in this country, and most women who seek them have hearts overflowing with fresh grief. The late discovery of a serious fetal abnormality or a health issue that would threaten the lives of both mother and fetus necessitate consulting with a different doctor than their own, one whose office is likely far from home and surrounded by vocal protesters holding graphic signs.

Other women who seek the procedure do so for different reasons; they are victims of incest or rape, they suffer from emotional disorders, or sometimes they simply lack the financial and family resources to imagine giving birth to and raising a baby. No matter what brings a woman to one of these clinics, the road before her isn't going to be easy. 

The anti-abortion demonstrators who take issue with the doctors featured in After Tiller often embrace the idea that people who perform and seek abortions are cold, callous and disrespectful of life. The filmmakers quietly illustrate otherwise by observing these four as they go about their daily routines of speaking to and maybe treating women whose lives have not gone as planned. In these moments it's clear that agonizing decisions are made at these doctors' offices. God is frequently mentioned. There are tears and hugs. Ultimately, complicated gratitude is expressed.

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