New Releases

Review: The Lone Ranger

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The Lone RangerDo you know what "Tonto" means in Spanish?  Apparently in Disney it means "Native American Jack Sparrow," because Johnny Depp's character in The Lone Ranger is a carbon copy of the colorful captain from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Strange, kooky demeanor, operates based on mysterious motives, always has a plan, scorned by his peers, works alone, manipulative, always making trades -- all these traits describe both characters.

There are many other ways director Gore Verbinski appears to have been working from his own notes on the Pirates series: fight choreography like swinging from a rope around a pole, a character playing with a watch much like Sparrow played with a compass, both characters end up in jail cells early in the movie, characters fight atop trains on parallel tracks reminiscent of ships, one of the bad guys likes to dress in women's clothing. If all that weren't enough, Tonto wears a bird on his head, as if to say "Get it? It's a bird, like a sparrow." (Entertainment Weekly has the skinny on the actual inspiration for the character design.)

As a childhood fan of the Lone Ranger, I enjoyed this adaptation scripted by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (two of whom also happen to be veterans of the Pirates series). The Lone Ranger is receiving no love from critics, but in spite of several weaknesses -- including a runtime of 149 minutes --I found much to enjoy. The film may find appreciation at the box office this holiday weekend -- after all, it's working from a well-established formula.

First, the movie is beautifully shot, from the opening scene in 1933 San Francisco (including an homage to The Red Balloon) all across the Old West. Armie Hammer, who is second-billed though playing the title character, is passable but generally unremarkable in the role opposite William Fichtner, who is doing some of his best work as the fiendish ringleader Butch Cavendish, one of the more compelling villians seen in a Disney film.

Summer Films Antidote: July 2013

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The Lone Ranger

Summertime at the movies typically spells excitement for some and skepticism for others. With most films coming from some previously existing property, it seems like audiences don't seem to have much cinematic choice during prime moviegoing season. So rather than just accept whatever the studios force upon you this month, here are some alternative choices to help make it through.

In theaters: The Lone Ranger (7/3)

Adding to the list of Johnny Depp's wacky assortment of characters this summer is his big-screen take on Tonto, the Native-American sidekick from the TV series The Lone Ranger. Starring alongside Armie Hammer (The Social Network) as the titular crime-fighter, Depp and the filmmakers seem determined to transform a beloved classic about the West's take on law and justice into 21st-century summer gold.

Antidote: Dark Shadows (2012)

If Depp is content on producing/starring in movie remakes of his favorite TV shows, then its best to revisit 2012's harshly judged Dark Shadows (Elizabeth Stoddard's review). Based on the campy supernatural 60s soap opera, the film tells the story of Barnabus Collins (Depp), an 18th-century playboy who is transformed into a vampire after breaking the heart of a witch, and is entombed for two centuries before being released. Many were no doubt exhausted by Depp's collaborations with director Tim Burton, yet Dark Shadows provides them with their most entertaining vehicle in years. While the film temporarily loses focus during the second act, its many virtues save it. The production design is a true wonder, the tongue-in-cheek humor is ripe, the chance to see Depp act opposite some of today's foremost leading ladies (Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green) doesn't disappoint and the ending is delightfully overblown gothic soap opera.

Review: The Heat

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Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock in The Heat

I probably started falling in love with The Heat as soon as the Seventies-tastic opening credits started rolling. The movie takes a tired genre, the buddy-cop comedy, and flips it on its head by having the buddies be ladies. The script by Katie Dippold provides many belly laughs. The cast is diverse (plus JOEY MCINTIRE is in it!) and Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock have a great chemistry together.

Director Paul Feig's latest film -- after his 2011 hit Bridesmaids -- has stoic FBI agent Ashburn (Bullock) going to Boston to root out a drug kingpin. Ashburn is extremely bright, but so starved for affection that she has to sneak cuddles from a neighbor's cat. In Boston, she strikes up a partnership with cop Mullins (McCarthy), a tough, brassy broad comfortable in her own skin. Of course they butt heads at the start (the film sticks to formula here), but grow closer as they work to solve the case.

The Heat is wonderfully refreshing, especially at this time when female-driven movies are scarce. The main relationship of the movie is obviously between the two women; there's some awkward flirting between Ashburn and her FBI co-worker Levy (Marlon Wayans) while Mullins loves 'em and leaves 'em, but these are barely even side stories. 

Review: White House Down

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White House Down posterThis summer brings us not one but two movies that feature the overtaking of the White House. Some may scoff at this idea in general. And when you hear that Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012) directed the latest of these two films, White House Down, not only might you wonder how a man can so easily destroy the White House again, but you might also wonder how silly a movie it will be.

White House Down, however, could end up being one of the more surprising movies of the summer. Not because it's better than it seemed it would be -- it's an action film after all, and surely would have been entertaining on at least some level. What is surprising about this movie is how tight the script is. It makes for an ultra enjoyable summer action flick that's got some great and smart moments that make it a complete picture, rather than an overblown hyperviolent actionfest (looking at you, Olympus Has Fallen).

On what starts as a normal day in Washington, D.C., the President (Jamie Foxx) declares that now is the time to pull all U.S. soldiers out of the Middle East. While this delights some, a lot of defense contractor money is at stake, so there are detractors to this plan. In the wrong place at the wrong time is John Cale (Channing Tatum), an aspiring Secret Service agent who happens to be at the White House for a job interview when the takeover happens. With no one left to protect the President, it's up to him to get the leader of the free world out safely. Oh, and he's gotta find his daughter, too.

A lot of pieces are at play in this story, which is standard for an Emmerich film, and some pieces tend to feel worthless and unnecessary. This is not a problem in White House Down. It's subtle when it needs to be (especially with foreshadowing), and never too over the top. The movie plays safely in the highly coveted PG-13 rating that makes summer films a huge success, and which is something that Olympus Has Fallen didn't even try to aim for.

Above all, Tatum and Foxx are fantastic as a duo. Trailers made it seem as though White House Down would be too silly, and maybe even kind of stupid, but that will be the furthest thing from your mind when you watch this movie. Every piece in this puzzle performs admirably, even the role of Cale's little girl, Emily (Joey King).

Review: Somm

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Somm posterI know very little about wine, and in fact I don't even drink it very often. And yet I was fascinated by the documentary Somm, about a handful of candidates for the extremely challenging master sommelier test, which many attempt and very few pass. I caught the movie at Hill Country Film Festival in May, and it opens today in Austin at Violet Crown Cinema.

Somm, the first feature-length film from Jason Wise, focuses on four sommeliers preparing for the test, starting three weeks out and going through the test weekend in Houston. They must pass three exams: theory and history, service and blind tasting. In between time with the candidates, other sommeliers and professionals in the wine industry check in on aspects of being a sommelier, tasting wines and preparing for this test.

The four candidates are fascinating to watch and easy to differentiate, all with distinct characteristics. Ian, who is extremely serious about the test prep, seems to get a little more screen time than the others. My favorite may have been DLynn, whose coworkers call him "Mr. Smooth," who was a lot of fun to watch. The candidates all know one another to some degree, and help each other through the prep.

The film starts to lag a little bit about two-thirds of the way through, when we are familiar with who these guys are and what they're doing, and we just want them to get to the test already and find out how they fared.

Fortunately, amusing anecdotes and colorful characters pull Somm through its slower segments. The most memorable interview subject is Fred Dame, the first American to pass this test, who helps mentor and test the candidates. I like watching him pretend to be an irate customer during DLynn's practice service test. Next he grills the hell out of Brian during a practice tasting session. Other sommeliers have some very funny stories about Dame as well.

Another entertaining segment of the documentary focuses on the ways sommeliers learn to smell wines and describe what they're smelling. There's a difference between fresh herbs and dried herbs, and the notes they describe include tennis balls, garden hoses, and cat pee ("the code word for that is blackcurrent").

Review: A Band Called Death

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A Band Called Death One SheetThe playlist of music documentaries this year has been overwhelming yet welcome to audiophiles around the world. Earlier this year, Drafthouse Films picked up A Band Called Death, which opens Friday at the Alamo Drafthouse Village. This movie -- also currently available for viewing on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and VOD outlets -- sheds light on a remarkable story fit for the annals of rock-and-roll history.

A Detroit band before its time, Death was made up of three of the Hackney brothers -- Dannis, David, and Bobby -- recording punk music in the early Seventies when others black musicians around them were deep into the Motown sound. The band played a few shows and recorded a single but were unable to interest record companies due to their punk sound and band name. Brother David had been inspired by the tragic death of their father to name the band Death, and was therefore unwilling to change the band's name.

The band and their music would have been lost had it not been for the discovery over 30 years later by a younger generation of audiophiles and punk fans craving rare music and historic punk. That led to the resurgence of Death and the release of master tapes that David had prophetically stated needed to be saved.

A Band Called Death features interviews with brothers Bobby and Dannis, as we eventually learn that David -- an alcoholic and prolific smoker -- passed away from lung cancer. Bobby and Dannis still perform in a reggae band they formed in Burlington, Vermont.

The cinematography of Mark Christopher Covino along with his co-direction with Jeff Howlett balances archival images with present-day interviews in a style reminiscent of this year's earlier music documentaries Muscle Shoals and Sound City.

The soundtrack and score for A Band Called Death are surprisingly understated for a "punk" documentary and should not dissuade non-punk enthusiasts from watching this inspiring film.

Refn and Martinez Bring 'Only God Forgives' to Austin

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Only God Forgives in Austin

Filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Bronson) and composer Cliff Martinez (Drive, Traffic) stopped in Austin briefly last week for what was unofficially the North American premiere of Refn's latest movie, Only God Forgives, at Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter. I was at the first of two evening screenings and enjoyed a very lively post-film Q&A from Martinez and Refn (pictured above).

Tim League brought Refn on stage to introduce the film. The writer-director noted that if his previous film, Drive, was the cinematic equivalent of an all-night cocaine binge, then Only God Forgives would be "a really good old-school acid trip." (He said the same thing at the official premiere at Los Angeles Film Festival the next day, but why not? It's a great intro.) He then left the stage so we could find out exactly what that might mean.

You can read my review when the movie opens on July 19, but I will say that it took at least 12 hours for me to decide what I thought about the movie, and even now I'm not so sure. It is stunning in a very literal sense -- I got the impression I wasn't the only one who felt stunned as the closing credits rolled.

Review: World War Z

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World War ZThere is a saying I like to cite that holds the more writers attached to a movie, the worse you can expect it to be. Opening this weekend, World War Z is a shining exception. Starring Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball), World War Z's writing credits include a Who's Who of talent: J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Thor, Underworld: Awakening) and Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play, The Kingdom) developed the story based on Max Brooks' novel of the same name. Carnahan, Drew Goddard (Lost, Cabin in the Woods) and Damon Lindelof then completed the script, which is rumored to include a complete rewrite of the ending. The script issues were part of a larger set of problems with the production that delayed its release by six months (just Google "World War Z production issues"), but the end result is a fine (and family-friendly PG-13) zombie movie.

The first thing fans of Brooks' novels should know is that this is not the same story as the source material. Though there are familiar elements, this story follows Gerry Lane (Pitt), an un-retired UN envoy on a mission around the globe to determine the source and find a cure for the zombie outbreak. The story picks up as the epidemic sweeps across America, angry rabid infectees biting helpless victims who in the space of 12 seconds are converted and join the horde. Compelling sound work and disturbingly graphic visual effects terrify and keep the heart pounding. (Truly, the makeup and creature work needs to be recognized next Oscar season.)

By now you have probably heard at least a hint of the argument between fans of "fast zombies" and "slow zombies." I hope this can put a nail in the coffin of slow-zombie movies. They seem to all devolve into the same tropes, people sitting around arguing about what to do as the writers build up their character development until -- oops -- the zombies have snuck up on them! Slow zombie movies tend to explore psychological aspects of small groups of people in survival situations, and there is admittedly a smattering of this element in World War Z. However, in this fastest of fast-zombie films, there is no time for sitting still. Personal dramas take a back seat to exploring the ways governments and entire nations deal with a problem of biblical proportions.

This is where I feel the script excels and Straczynski's influence is most strongly felt. David Morse appears as a CIA agent with his own theories and a little intel on the plague. His opinions on Israel's involvement drop a supernatural cloak over the mood, and the North Korean "solution" is as fascinating as it is horrifying -- but entirely believable as something only North Korea, in all the world, could accomplish.

Review: Monsters University

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The brothers of Oozma Kappa in Monsters University

Pixar's wonderful film Monsters, Inc. introduced us to scare team Sulley (John Goodman) and Mike (Billy Crystal) who discover and unravel an insidious corporate plot after they meet cute human toddler Boo. There, Mike mainly serves as a comic sidekick for Sulley, while coming up with such musical hits as "Put That Thing Back Where it Came From (Or So Help Me)." In Monsters University, which opens this week, we learn how Mike and Sulley first met, but this time Mike gets more of the spotlight.

One-eyed green monster Mike Wazowski has never fit in and desires to stand out. Upon a field trip to Monsters, Inc. as a kid, he decides his goal in life is to be a scarer, and one of the guys on the scare floor recommends attending Monsters University. Fast forward 10 or so years and we see Mike in his first days on campus.  He is studious and book-smart, but is told by the dean of the scare school (Helen Mirren) that he just isn't cut out to scare.

Mike and Sulley, far from being friends yet (more like angry acquaintances), come to be kicked out of the scare program and are both determined to get back in. The two join fraternity Oozma Kappa, a small group of geeky misfits, so they can compete in the Scare Games. There's no big bad here! Just self-doubt and slight antagonism from other characters.

Review: The Bling Ring

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The Bling Ring 2013

From late 2008 until late 2009, a group of Hollywood teenagers came up with the bright idea that it would be fun and easy to rob the homes of numerous celebrities. Their victims were chosen using a variety of websites specializing in the Hollywood gossip trade. These sites provide a laser-like focus on the whereabouts of the rich and famous. In high demand and constantly away from home (on vacation, working on films, attending club openings, etc.),  these people proved easy marks for a group of young, unsophisticated home invaders.

With this rough description of Sofia Coppola's tepid new movie, The Bling Ring, you now possess the entirety of what this paint-by-numbers story is all about.

For those of you following at home:

  1. Kids get the idea to rob celebrity homes. 
  2. Kids use gossip websites to determine when Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom and others are out of town. 
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