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Review: Blackfish



Like many polemical documentaries, the horrifying Blackfish is a challenge to review. Its subject -- the mistreatment of killer whales who perform at SeaWorld and other water parks -- is emotionally charged, and any critic with a glimmer of sympathy for animals will find it hard to separate the film's message from its cinematic qualities.

Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, an outsized 12,000 lb. killer whale who has been performing at water parks since his capture in 1983. Eager to perform but sometimes dangerously unpredictable, Tilikum has killed three people -- trainer Keltie Byrne at Sealand of the Pacific in 1991, SeaWorld Orlando visitor Daniel Dukes in 1999, and star SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.

Tilikum's deadly history is uncommon, but Blackfish argues that his life story is not. Via heartbreaking archival footage and interviews, the film explains that capturing wild killer whales was commonplace for decades and especially cruel: the whale hunters captured only young whales as the distraught adults looked on helplessly. (In the wild, killer whale offspring stay with their mothers for life.)

Interview: Maggie Carey, 'The To Do List'


AFF 2010

When interviewing filmmakers and actors for upcoming new releases, journalists like me usually get ten minutes. It can be very limiting. There are the interviews where the subject has his/her answers down pat and will launch into answers when you've barely asked the questions. There are the assembly-line interviews where the actor is getting bored because you're the dozenth person he or she has spoken with that day. After some of these, I wonder if I'm bringing anything different to an interview feature than the 40 other articles that will appear in print and online around the movie's release.

But some interviews feel like real conversations, and 10 minutes aren't enough. I wish Maggie Carey and I could have easily taken a half-hour to chat about Austin and indie filmmakers and strong female characters in film (I had some great questions we never got to). I wish we could have chatted at Kerbey Lane (but not at 4 am), which you will understand if you read this whole article. What I needed was 20 more minutes and a couple of beers.

As a result, this interview doesn't feel like the same one a dozen other people had with the writer/director of The To Do List, which opened in Austin on Friday and which I found delightful (my review). I think you'll enjoy the read, especially if you live in Austin.

Review: The To Do List


The To Do List

The 80s and 90s brought us numerous coming-of-age comedies about the innocent young man who wants to gain experience with young women and finds himself in the middle of any number of raunchy and/or outrageous situations.

With The To Do List (it's killing me not to put a hyphen in there) the scenario is reversed, and this time a young woman seeks sexual experience and adventures. Set in the early 1990s, the movie intentionally calls back to those male-centered raunchy sex comedies, but this time a female actually experiences sexual gratification onscreen. 

It is a refreshing change. When was the last time you watched a movie in which a female character had an orgasm? (Sorry, Mom.) And not a pretend one in a deli, either. I am talking about a woman who enjoys sex and isn't punished for it by being eaten by a shark or knifed by a serial killer or the victim of a fatal disease. It grows very tiresome.

Brandy (Aubrey Plaza) is her high schools' valedictorian, graduating with every academic honor under the sun ... but knowing nothing about sex or intimate relationships. She finds this out the hard way (no, that's not a pun, stop it) and addresses her lack of knowledge and experience in a way that any brainy teenage girl might: She compiles a list of activities that will prepare her for being sexually comfortable and experienced when she arrives at college.

Movies This Week: July 26 - August 1, 2013


Four Lions

This week is one of intriguing new releases. As a perpetual Pedro Almodóvar groupie, I can't help saying I'm so excited about I'm So Excited. I'm even more excited about Fruitvale Station; I've never met a gritty, thought-provoking urban drama about poverty and racism I didn't like. The To Do List also has my attention, if only because the hilariously deadpan Aubrey Plaza tops my current list of fantasy friends with benefits.

No less intriguing are the special screenings. At the Marchesa Hall & Theatre, the Austin Film Society presents three movies from Austin's own Drafthouse Films. The terrorism comedy (yes, you read that right) Four Lions (pictured above) screens on Friday, the dark Australian classic Wake in Fright screens on Sunday, and The Act of Killing -- a startlingly imaginative statement against genocide -- screens on Wednesday.

Hitchcock fans, this is your week: the Paramount Summer Classic Film Series offers four nights (Monday through Thursday) of Hitchcockian double features. Among the eight classics are The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder and, of course, Psycho, so every night promises to be a ... wait for it ... good evening. Refer to the Paramount calendar for details.

Review: The Wolverine


The Wolverine

This is the Wolverine movie we've been waiting for, and waiting for, and waiting for... mostly. Not long after the poorly-received (yet still wildly profitable) X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009 it became clear that a sequel was likely to be made. Unfortunately, with a completed script by Christopher McQuarrie and Darren Aronofsky announced to direct, the project was subjected to delays after the departure of Aronofsky, a script rewrite by Mark Bomback, and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Directed by James Mangold, Hugh Jackman returns as The Wolverine in a film that explores the character's personal history and most difficult struggle after a mysterious enemy blocks his healing ability and renders him powerless. The Wolverine takes place after events in X-Men: The Last Stand forced Wolverine to kill his love, Jean Grey. Now dreaming of her every night and vowing to give up his Wolverine persona to never again hurt anyone, Logan has exiled himself to the Yukon to live in isolation. We find him here at the conclusion of an introductory scene, where he dreams of surviving the bombing of Hiroshima and saving the life of a Japanese soldier there.

This was one of my favorite scenes, not only for the vivid and horrifying depiction of nuclear devastation but also because it presents a selfless heroic moment from Logan. It was a powerful way to reacquaint the audience with the character and set the stage for the rest of the film. The strength of that scene gives way, however, to the first of several weak points in the movie.

After coming upon the remains of a hunting party and finding the grizzly who attacked them suffering from poison, Logan is forced to put the bear out of its misery and then immediately abandons his vow to never again hurt anyone. He travels to the nearby town and confronts the lone surviving hunter in a bar. He is soon on the verge of killing everyone in it before being stopped by a mysterious Japanese girl who takes him away, explaining that she was sent by her employer Yashida, the soldier he had saved in Hiroshima.

From this point on, the story is a difficult to follow jumble of characters given too little screen time and who fade out and reappear with shifting motivations and loyalties. Logan is offered the chance to give up his immortality in order to save his dying friend, but he declines the offer. Almost immediately, he finds himself without his healing ability, fighting to save Yashida's granddaughter from Yakuza, who disrupts his funeral to kidnap her.

This is a more personal story that draws heavily (but not without alteration) from the Wolverine comics. Even without his healing ability, Wolverine is still incredibly tough, strong, and wearing an adamantium skeleton. He's almost the only mutant in the movie, but the smaller-scale action and fight choreography are superb. In spite of the few weaknesses in the story and somewhat overdone summer-blockbuster nature of the final-act battle, this is one of the better entries in the X-Men franchise. Be sure to hang around during the credits for a tease a la the lead-ins to The Avengers.

Review: I'm So Excited!


The title of the film alone had me from the get go. I first discovered Pedro Almodóvar when I was in high school -- by accident. Back in the days of Blockbuster rentals, 18-year-old me decided that I was done with the typical goofball comedies and romcoms; I was ready for films of "substance." Of course I wasn't quite sure what I meant by that, but I decided the best way would be to look for films with actors I liked. I then stumbled into the Foreign Film section and spotted a glorious cover of Gael García Bernal dressed as a woman. 'A Film by Almodóvar' read the top of the DVD case, and I have followed those four words ever since that rental.

A friend and I once discussed how Almodóvar has a knack for making films that seem unrealistic, yet you can't help but believe them because they are so well done. This is exactly how I'm So Excited! (Los amantes pasajeros) felt to me: slightly unrealistic, but engaging the entire time. 

It's hard to say who the star of the film is because it features the filmmaker's typical ensemble cast. We meet the three zany flight crew members (led by the always hilarious Javier Cámara of Bad Education and Talk To Her), the pilots, and a handful of eccentric passengers. We get the sense that something is wrong, and our hesitation is confirmed when Bruna (Lola Dueñas), a self-proclaimed psychic traveling on board, tells the flight crew that something big is going to happen to everyone on the flight. Whether or not it is impending doom is to be determined, but everyone on board decides to cut loose anyway with drugs and alcohol. Because, if you're going to die, why not live it up? 

Review: Fruitvale Station


Fruitvale Station Still PhotoWith the advent of video technology that is now so commonplace in cell phones, anyone can document an event and share footage on the Internet or even to a media outlet as a citizen reporter. This ability often brings police incidents that may be a blip across the police blotter into the public eye, fueling public reaction.

Such was the case in the first hours of 2009, when New Year's Eve revelers were returning from the Embarcadero in San Francisco to their homes in the East Bay. After a fight on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train, several passengers, including 22-year-old Oscar Grant, were detained on the platform of the Fruitvale Station by BART police. Other passengers who witnessed the incident used their phones to film the interaction between police officers and the detainees, later testifying in court that they did so because they believed BART officers "were acting too aggressively" toward Grant and his companions.

As tensions rose with shouts from both the detainees and train passengers, more officers arrived on the scene. During the chaos, BART officer Johannes Mehserle attempted to use his Taser on Grant but drew his gun instead. Grant was shot through the back; the bullet ricocheted off the concrete and punctured his lung. Grant left behind a four-year-old daughter when he died the following morning. His death and the ruling of involuntary manslaughter in Mehserle's trial fueled protests in the Bay Area and heated debate across the nation about race and the use of force by police.

Summer Films Antidote: August 2013


 Little Trip to Heaven

August is usually seen as the "dumping ground" month by some due to the fact that most of the bigger summer films have already come and gone. This month will see the studios release their latest inventory of titles and stars that, for whatever reason, didn’t make the July cut yet still have late-summer hit potential. As usual however, there are always alternative choices to beat those August movie blues.

In theaters: 2 Guns (8/2)

One of the few star vehicles of the summer, 2 Guns sees Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg compete for screen time in this bullet-ridden crime caper about drugs and stolen money, which plays off of both stars’ box-office personas.

Antidote: A Little Trip to Heaven (2005)

From 2 Guns director Baltasar Kormákur, A Little Trip to Heaven is the Icelandic filmmaker's little-seen English-language debut starring Forest Whitaker as an insurance investigator sent to a small town to explore the death a $1,000,000 policy holder and question his surviving sister, played by Julia Stiles. The film may have bypassed most theaters during its release, but it has certainly earned its place in the tradition of modern-day noir. The atmosphere is appropriately chilling, small details stand out in virtually every scene, and Kormákur’s knack for carving out suspense never wavers. Most impressive of all are the three leads (which also includes Jeremy Renner as Stiles’ husband); each one is morally corrupt and fatally flawed. While certain elements could have been tweaked (i.e.  Forest Whitaker’s Irish accent,) A Little Trip to Heaven is one of the more impressive American debuts from a director whose best is still to come. 

Review: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me


Big Star: Nothing Can Stop Me Now

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is the latest of a recent crop of buzzworthy documentaries that introduces viewers to talented artists who struggled to find mainstream success when their music was originally released. The story of Memphis rockers Big Star includes incredible artistic achievements followed by snowballing bad luck. When band members Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel formed in 1971, Chilton was reinventing himself a few years after having a #1 hit single at the tender age of 16 with "The Letter" (by his previous band The Box Tops).  

Everything about the early days of Big Star predicted great things to come. After recording their debut album, the cheekily titled "#1 Record", at Ardent Studios in Memphis, the album's release was set to be distributed as one of the first rock albums on Ardent's record label deal through the legendary Stax Records. That label had just signed a deal with Columbia Records, which should have provided Big Star with nationwide distribution through a major label with plenty of marketing power. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Stax went bankrupt, Columbia never promoted the record, and it quietly sold 20,000 copies in markets where it had radio airplay and could be found in a handful of stores. 

Co-directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori bring this heartbreaking struggle to the big screen with plenty of archival footage combined with present-day interviews with music journalists, surviving band members, extended family members and musicians who were influenced by the band. The film was partially funded with the help of Kickstarter, which illustrates just how rabid the fanbase for Big Star remains even all these years later. With only three albums under their belt, they may not have ever had Billboard chart success, but they inspired a lot of people who somehow found their way to the music to start their own bands. 

One of the interview clips that perfectly captures the essence of Big Star comes from Robyn Hitchcock, who says that discovering the band's music was like "a letter that was posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985, like something that got lost in the mail." The success of this film will come not just from fans, but also hopefully from people just discovering their new favorite band over 40 years after their inception. 

Review: Red 2


Red 2 posterThe grouping together of a cast of great actors like Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and even Mary-Louise Parker would seem like a sure-fire way to generate a hit movie. In 2010, that was the case with Red. Based on a graphic novel from DC Comics, the action movie put some older actors in a position to do some pretty heroic and badass things.

With the moderate success of that film, plus its star power, obviously a sequel had to happen. But did it, really? Red 2 places a lot of faith in you the viewer being a huge fan of the original, and doesn't deliver on much else. If you are a fan of Red, though, this might just be an enjoyable trip to the movies for you this weekend.

In Red 2, we're catching up with Frank (Willis) and Sarah (Parker), who are in a relationship rut since there doesn't appear to be anyone trying to kill them anymore. That safety won't last long, though, when Marvin (Malkovich) tries to get Frank to come along with him to kill the people who are now trying to kill them both over a botched mission from the late '70s when they worked for the CIA.

Multiple governments are out to kill Frank, Sarah, and Marvin, and the U.S. even hires the world's most dangerous assassin, Han Cho Bai (Byung-hun Lee). Han Cho Bai still harbors a lot of anger towards Frank over being double-crossed long ago. The old gang's journey to clear their names -- and save the world in the process, of course -- takes them to many places and they cross paths with a lot of interesting people along the way.

What Red 2 does incredibly well is film action and fighting scenes. They're some of the best you'll see all year, especially seeing Byung-hun Lee do his thing. He should be a much bigger star in the United States than he is. Thankfully, he's a big star in Korea and he is in some truly fantastic movies there. No one else in the cast seems to be mailing it in, which is reassuring because for a sequel like that, it's almost expected that a lack of effort would be evident on screen.

What's frustrating about Red 2 is that it isn't a bad movie. Far from it, actually. But it's just so bland and inconsequential that it feels as though a sequel wasn't needed at all. It's not good enough to create the kind of word-of-mouth buzz that will sustain a good box-office run. Despite the effort by the cast, it still feels like something no one put much of an effort into creating.

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