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International Fests Provide a Preview of Texas Films

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dallas buyers club

It's both fun and frustrating to follow the blogs and twitter updates of people attending fall film festivals (Venice Film Festival ended last week and Toronto International Film Festival ends Sunday). The abundance of fresh reviews being published online makes it easy to start building an "I wanna see that" list, but hearing critics' boasts and brags about their favorites can stir up a distracting amount of jealousy and impatience (that's true for this movie fan, anyway).

Luckily Austin ranks somewhat reasonably as a film city so we'll get to see many of these enticing movies soon enough (especially with Austin Film Festival just a few weeks away). While we wait, here's a list of titles with Texas or Austin connections that have been stirring up some buzz at recent festivals. As usual, it looks like our local filmmakers and actors are doing the Lone Star State proud. 

Dallas Buyers Club -- This based-on-a-true-story drama is set in Dallas and stars Austin regular (and future Oscar-nominee?) Matthew McConaughey. Based on the breathless reactions to its world premiere in Venice and North American premiere at TIFF, it's likely that Jean-Marc Vallee's film about HIV in 1986 is on its way to awards recognition of some kind. Between McConaughey's performance (and physical transformation -- he dropped a ton of weight for the shoot) and the dark subject matter (illness, homophobia, illegal drug smuggling) this one has critics all aflutter -- it actually has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes right now. 

Review: Austenland

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I can't recall if I've ever been a huge Jane Austen fan. Sure, I have always appreciated her writing, and even starred in a high-school production of Pride and Prejudice. (Don't get excited -- I just played the maid.) I do know that I typically don't go out of my way to see film adaptations of her work because I have never found myself to be the "hopeless romantic" type. This is why I have decided that Austenland is the perfect film for someone like me -- eager to keep the realism of romance, but secretly wanting our heroine to find a good guy in the end. 

Jane (played by the adorable Keri Russell) is obsessed with Jane Austen's work. We see a quick flash of her childhood and young adult life, which includes all things British ... such as a life-size cut out of Colin Firth in costume as Mr. Darcy. We also see that her present life is nowhere near as glamorous or charming as the women in Austen's books. It is around this time that Jane decides she is going to cash in her life savings and take the trip she has always wanted to take -- to Austenland, in search of her own Mr. Darcy.

From the start of her adventure she teams up with Elizabeth (Jennifer Coolidge), who quickly becomes Jane's sidekick and plays the touristy American looking to take in the men more than the sights. Since all the guests are women, everything is catered toward what women did during this time period. Needlepoint, playing cards and lots of walking are just a few of the thrilling activities for the resort patrons.

The tricky thing about this place though is you don't quite know what is real or what is just part of the act. Austenland's owner Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) does everything to make her guests stay as authentically "Austen" as possible, romantic encounters included. Does Martin (Bret McKenzie), the lowly stable boy, win Jane's affection? Or will it be Henry (JJ Feild), the standoffish, grumpy noble?

Review: The Grandmaster

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The Grandmaster

It's impossible to write about Wong Kar-Wai's latest film without an explanation of the controversy surrounding the release. When The Grandmaster was released in China at the beginning of the year, it ran 130 minutes. The movie was then slightly trimmed down to 123 minutes before premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. Between Berlin and further international release, the movie was cut down to 108 minutes

Many fans have criticized The Weinstein Company (which owns the distribution rights for the film in most territories) for attempting to dumb the film down for American audiences, but by all accounts the editing was done under the full supervision of Wong Kar-Wai, who recently stated that he "always wanted to have a U.S. version that was a bit tighter and that helped clarify the complex historical context of this particular era in Chinese history."

The film works as a complex origin story, presenting the life of martial-arts legend Ip Man (Tony Leung), although his story is intertwined with a fearless female fighter named Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) who initially challenges him to gain back her family's honor.

Review: Cutie and the Boxer

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Cutie and the Boxer

Are the sacrifices involved in making great art worthwhile? That's one of the questions posed by Cutie and the Boxer, the debut documentary from Zachary Heinzerling about two artists and how they work ... and how they live together as husband and wife, as they've done for nearly 40 years.

Ushio Shinohara is an internationally acclaimed artist whose "boxing" paintings and motorcycle-themed sculptures were considered an integral part of the Pop Art influence in Japan in the 1960s. Now it's the 2010s, and Ushio has been living in New York since at least 1970 -- that's when he met his wife, Noriko an aspiring artist more than 20 years his junior. Ushio has just turned 80, and the couple are living with their son in a small New York apartment that has seen better days, trying to figure out how to pay the rent and utilities.

The documentary doesn't rely on spoken or written narration to get us up to speed. The audience has to pay attention and learn who these people are, and where, and when, from watching them onscreen. This draws us closer into the lives of the Shinoharas.

Review: I Declare War

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I Declare War

I have very fond memories from when I was a kid of exploring the trails and vast wooded acres behind the house my grandparents lived in, alongside my cousins (and our friends who often found an excuse to come spend weekends with us because there was also a massive pond for swimming in the summer). We didn't often play things like Capture the Flag, but occasionally we were allowed to use my grandma's gigantic camcorder to make silly commercials and short movies.

Those summer days of my youth came flashing back to me during I Declare War, a clever Canadian reimagination of young kids playing war games in the woods, which won the Audience Award last year at Fantastic Fest.

The movie jumps us right into action, with two teams deep into another round of competition against one another. One side is headed up by PK Sullivan (Gage Munroe), a take-charge leader whose winning strategies come in part from his frequent viewings of Patton. The other side is initally led by Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), who is quickly overtaken by a devious boy named Skinner (Michael Friend) who runs a coup to prove he can outwit PK and lead his friends to a triumphant victory. The only problem is that Skinner actually has a personal score to settle with PK and he's not above breaking the established rules of the game to win.

Review: The World's End

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The World's End posterI found the latest movie in Edgar Wright's Cornetto trilogy, The World's End, just as I expected. This is not at all a bad thing -- there's nothing worse in moviegoing than disappointed hopes. (That's not true. Unexpected graphic cruelty to animals is a lot worse.)

But Wright, co-writer/actor Simon Pegg and actor Nick Frost deliver a comedy/genre film along the same lines as their previous two endeavors, and do it very entertainingly, to the point where I hope the word "trilogy" is more of a guideline than an ending.

This time around, Pegg plays Gary King, a burned-out Peter Pan in his forties whose greatest memories are from his teenage days leading a gang of five. He loves to tell the tale of the night they tried to drink a pint in each of the dozen pubs in their small town -- the "Golden Mile" of drinking -- and how glorious it was even though they never got through all 12 pubs.

Gary wants to get the band back together, so to speak, and try the Golden Mile again with his now-fortysomething mates. But everyone else has grown up, particularly his best friend Andy Knightley (Frost), who has become a buttoned-up teetotaler after some event with Gary obliquely alluded to in hushed voices.

The first third of The World's End (named after the twelfth pub) focuses on this lone loser who still wants to be a teenager, and his attempts to recreate his glory days and rekindle his old friendships. And then, just as the pathos is about to feel a little wearing ... the plot shifts sideways. Really sideways and maybe upside-down. With a cherry on top. Just as it did when the zombies showed up in Shaun of the Dead.

Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints

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Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Critics often urge readers to see a particular film in a theater, noting that the movie looks and sounds so amazing on a big screen, they'll miss something valuable by watching on a TV or worse yet, a laptop or tablet. I've said it myself any number of times. I'm certain that if I'd seen Ain't Them Bodies Saints in a movie theater, that is exactly what I would tell you.

And yet, watching the movie from a studio-watermarked DVD on a laptop, sitting on my bed, I was entirely absorbed by the beauty and intensity of this movie, struck by the subtle soundtrack, as mesmerized as I might have been if I'd seen it projected from 35mm at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz.

It's not an unfamiliar story, enriched by unexpectedly nuanced characters. Ruth (Rooney Mara) discovers she's pregnant with Bob's child, and shortly after, they're caught by police after committing a crime in their small Texas town. Bob (Casey Affleck) ends up imprisoned while Ruth waits and cares for the child. Bob can't bear to be penned up away from his family, and meanwhile Sheriff Wheeler (Ben Foster) and retired criminal Skerritt (Keith Carradine) are keeping an eye on Ruth in different ways.

Review: You're Next

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Family dinners can be hell. Just ask the Davisons, or what's left of them, in the horror flick You're Next, opening Friday. During a rare family dinner to celebrate the wedding anniversary of Aubrey (Barbara Crampton) and Paul (Rob Moran), a mysterious gang of masked murderers invades the Davisons' grand backwoods vacation home, only to find out that one of the victims harbors a deadly secret themselves.

Director Adam Wingard may be best known for his low-budget horror films A Horrible Way to Die (which also co-stars AJ Bowen) and V/H/S, and it's this keen sensibility to make something visually grand out of nothing that puts You're Next ahead of other recent horror and suspense films. But that's not saying much.

The blood-splattered "You're Next" on walls and glass is a schtick that's been done to death and that the movie could have done without (and would've been better if it had). I'm pretty sure the film's cast, which also includes filmmaker Joe Swanberg, Texas native and filmmaker Amy Seimetz, Nicholas Tucci and Sharni Vinson (Step Up 3D), didn't need a set cue to begin screaming or appearing to be really distressed. That's what Swanberg's character was there for.

Review: In a World...

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L: Fred Melamed and Lake Bell, R: Demitri Martin and Lake Bell in IN A WORLD...

In a World... is the kind of film you find yourself recommending to various friends the week after seeing it -- or at least I did. Lake Bell wrote and directed the feminist comedy*, in which she also plays Carol, a struggling female voiceover artist in a world of men, ahem. In between gigs -- which is most of the time -- she works as a vocal coach. When an opportunity arises for her to compete against men who are better known in the business, she takes it.

Carol has grown up in the shadow of her father, Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), a renowned voiceover artist. Sam hopes to hand off his legacy to heir apparent Gustav (Ken Marino, Wet Hot American Summer) and tells his daughter that the "industry does not crave the female sound." That's just a taste of the institutional sexism Carol has to confront. She stammers her way through awkward situations, yet she's utterly composed in the recording booth.

Interview: Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, 'The World's End'

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Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg & Nick Frost at Alamo Lakeline by Jack Plunkett

I had the chance to participate in my first roundtable interview in late July when writer/director Edgar Wright, writer/actor Simon Pegg and actor Nick Frost stopped in Austin on their "Last Call Tour." They met with press on a Saturday afternoon and did a Q&A at the Alamo Drafthouse's new Lakeline location that night (pictured above), all to celebrate their latest film together, The World's End.

In The World's End, a group of men in their forties are reunited by Gary (Pegg), a man who aims to be cool and is determined to take on "The Golden Mile" -- a pub run -- with his former schoolmates. The planned excursion will finish in the wee hours at the final pub, The World's End... if the group can make it that far.

To combat any nervousness I had, I re-watched some episodes of Spaced on Netflix before heading up to the Four Seasons Hotel. When I walked into the room where Pegg and Frost were sitting (Wright was running late), it felt somewhat similar to running into old friends. After seeing his bleak look in The World's End, I had worried Pegg was aging prematurely, but he looked perfectly fine that day in a polo shirt and glasses. Frost also wore specs with his dark, pearl-buttoned shirt.

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