New Releases

Review: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

From its opening sequence, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work takes a candid, unvarnished approach to its well-known subject. The documentary, opening Friday at the Arbor, opens with an extreme close-up of makeup being applied to Joan Rivers' natural, blemished face. The image is striking -- we're used to seeing this celebrity's famously lifted and heavily made-up public visage, but the face before us is that of an elderly and ordinary-looking woman.

The film presents Rivers' life and career as the venerable comedienne turns 75 years old, a milestone she grudgingly accepts and doesn't quite celebrate. Age, of course, usually spells the end of a show business career, but Rivers' performance dance card remains mostly full. Her busy schedule is a testament to her comedic genius, but even more so to her self-marketing savvy and unstoppable work ethic.

Thanks to extensive clips from Rivers' hilariously vulgar standup routines, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is often a riot to watch, although viewers who know her only from broadcast television may be a bit shocked at her uncensored, anything-goes brand of humor. Before she found stardom on the Tonight Show and other comedy and variety shows in the mid-1960s, Rivers made a living by pushing the envelope in Greenwich Village clubs with edgy routines about drugs, sex, and other unmentionable truths. Although raunchy comedy is no longer novel, her feisty, bitchy and self-deprecating delivery makes the material fresh and often cringingly funny.

Review: Knight and Day

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Summer films are generally full of actions and at best light on substance. The latest Tom Cruise vehicle fits the formula; look too closely and the plot falls apart. But if you don't, you just might enjoy the action thriller Knight and Day

June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is on her way back home with precious cargo -- vintage car parts needed before her sister’s wedding -- and at the airport, she keeps bumping into Roy (Tom Cruise), an enigmatic charmer. Suddenly June is caught between Roy and his handlers with the federal government, which tells her he's a rogue agent, in a cat-and-mouse game that crosses the globe.

In mostly typical romantic thriller action, June makes some bad choices and Roy keeps saving her, all while keeping to his personal mission, which may or may not be what he says. Things are rarely what they seem within Knight and Day, and mostly it works. There are some clever moments, some of which are diminished by bouts of lazy scripting (or perhaps interference to keep it Hollywood). 

Review: Toy Story 3

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The toys are back!

After the previous exceptional Toy Story movies, much is expected from Toy Story 3. A rollicking adventure that serves as an homage of sorts to the prison/escape movie genre, the animated movie also packs an emotional punch. You wouldn't expect anything less from a Pixar film.

In this addition to the series, the toys -- much reduced in number over the years -- are suffering from lack of attention from their owner, Andy, now 17 years old and packing for college. A few toys, such as cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), aren't coping well with possible rejection, while cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) tries to convince them that the attic will be a nifty place to hang out.  

A mishap occurs and the toys end up at Sunnyside Day Care instead, a place ruled by charismatic, good-ol-boy teddy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty), with a Ken doll (hilariously voiced by Michael Keaton) and a big, doodled-upon baby doll as his minions. While Andy's toys are there, a relationship grows quickly between Molly's donated Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken, Woody is taken home by shy, imaginative Bonnie (whose mom works at the day care) and meets her dedicated toys (Kristen Schall, Jeff Garlin, and Roger Dalton), and the Pizza Planet delivery truck makes yet another appearance in the series.

Review: Solitary Man

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Solitary Man

Watching Solitary Man reminded me of an old saying that, if quoted accurately, might offend some readers of this generally family-friendly website. So, I'll quote a slightly altered version: Your male reproductive organ can get you in a lot of trouble.

Oh, if only the film's titular solitary man would heed these timeless words of wisdom. Opening Friday at the Arbor, Solitary Man is the story of Ben Kalman (Michael Douglas), a fiftysomething divorced father with a lonely heart, a boundless libido and two major talents. His first talent is one most men would envy: an amazing ability to talk young women into bed with him. His second talent is not so enviable: an equally amazing ability to ruin his own life, usually in connection with his first talent.

Ben is a sad, selfish and thoroughly unlikeable example of middle-aged ruination, a former titan among New York City car dealers whose hubris, greed and shady business dealings cost him his business and fortune. As the film opens, he's on the verge of a comeback. But when a financing deal falls through, he finds himself broke and jobless. Ben's high-living days are long gone; he now lives in a dank apartment, borrowing rent money from his increasingly irritated daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer), who keeps him in her life mostly so her son can see his grandfather.

Review: The Karate Kid

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The Karate Kid

Director Harald Zwart and screenwriter Christopher Murphey set their sights high with the newly released The Karate Kid, a remake of the memorable and inspirational 1984 original of The Karate Kid, both based on an original story by Robert Mark Kamen. Ralph Macchio starred as Daniel Larusso in the 1984 version as a New Jersey high schooler who moves to California with his mother. He is bullied by local teens until he meets Mr. Miyagi, a handyman/martial artist played by the late Noriyuki "Pat" Morita. Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel-san that there's more to karate than violence.

In the remake, Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) plays Dre Parker, a 12-year-old kid who moves to Beijing, China, after his mother (Taraji P. Henson from Date Night, Hustle & Flow) is transferred for her job with a car company. Bullied by local boys who are trained in the martial arts by a merciless sensei, Dre is rescued from an attack by handyman Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) who then begins teaching him the art of kung fu. Dre must face his attackers one-on-one at a tournament -- who needs qualifying competitions in Hollywood?

Review: Please Give

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Please Give

Excellent performances, a well-written script, comic at times and emotional without being sappy at others ... and an odd feeling of discomfort after seeing the movie. That was my experience watching Please Give, the latest film from Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money). I enjoyed the movie as much as is possible while at the same time, wondering if some of the film was more relevant to me than I cared to admit.

Please Give focuses its gaze on a privileged family in New York City as well as the less fortunate family living across the hall, and their interactions. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) run a vintage furniture store, often buying their wares from the family members of recently deceased elderly folks who just want to get rid of the furniture, unaware of its potential value. They've also bought the apartment across the hall from them, hoping to knock down the walls and enlarge their own home once the aging tenant Andra dies.

Interview: Eric Byler, '9500 Liberty'

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9500 Liberty Filmmaker Eric Byler

As I noted last week, filmmaker Eric Byler was in Austin to promote 9500 Liberty, currently playing at the Dobie (Don's review). The documentary depicts the battleground in Virginia and on the Internet over an anti-immigration policy, the "Immigration Resolution," that the Prince William County board of supervisors adopted in 2008. To counteract the racial divisions that occurred in their community, county residents formed a resistance using YouTube videos and virtual town halls. The inflammatory showdown between the groups had profound and devastating social and economic impacts in their community.

Byler and Annabel Park not only co-directed 9500 Liberty, but co-founded the political action group Coffee Party USA in response to the politics that enabled the Virginia anti-immigration law to pass. Byler is the YouTube/Online Media Coordinator for the group, and has created a number of videos about political issues.

As he mentions in his interview, Byler screened two of his feature narrative films at SXSW: Charlotte Sometimes in 2002, which won an audience award; and Americanese in 2006, which won the Best Narrative Feature award and a special jury prize for Outstanding Ensemble Cast. I caught up with Byler before last week's 9500 Liberty special screening at the Texas History Museum and asked him a few questions.

Review: Get Him to the Greek

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Get Him to the Greek

Okay, I'm just going to up and say it: I think Russell Brand is hot. There. Now you know. I liked him better than anyone else in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (although I have a bit of a Jason Segal crush too), and I felt embarrassed for him in that dreadful Bedtime Stories. I hoped Get Him to the Greek wouldn't suck, and that if nothing else, I could at least enjoy watching Brand as a rockstar for two hours. Happily, I not only enjoyed Brand on that guilty visual level, but I laughed my way through Get Him to the Greek. Writer/director Nicholas Stoller has brought us a film that feels shorter and funnier than his previous outing, Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Get Him to the Greek reunites Stoller with Brand and Jonah Hill -- Brand plays rockstar Aldous Snow from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but Hill's character, Aaron Green, is different. He's a junior staffer at a record label, and his boss is Sean Combs. Aaron is a huge Aldous Snow fan -- well, up until the point where the rocker released that awful "African Child" song and sank into a drug and alcohol-fueled decline -- and thinks it would be great to bring Aldous to LA for a big concert to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his best concert. His boss agrees ... and makes Aaron travel to London to pick up Aldous and make sure he gets to the concert venue (The Greek, natch) on time.

Review: Splice

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Some movies are hard to dismiss for the overall quality and cheats used during the story because they are simply so brazenly ambitious they deserve acclaim for the chutzpah. Splice has all the chutzpah of groundbreaking science fiction with as much mishugas that often comes with an auteur work.

Vincent Natali isn't new to genre-bending concepts; his first screenplay and directorial debut was Cube. While Cube was not a groundbreaking film, it was a throwback to provocative sci-fi with horror elements that challenge the morality of the characters without taking the safe way out.

Splice focuses on Elsa and Clive, two rock-n-roll geneticists who make the cover of Wired and are riding high on their success of creating a new life form that produces compounds valuable to the pharmaceutical company that gave them free reign -- until now. Their ambitions curbed by corporate reality checks, but both Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) chaff at the restrictions in project scope. Playing fast and loose with genetic material, including human samples, Elsa defies the new directives -- and Clive's ethical concerns, an unapproved experiment ultimately leading to nightmarish consequences. 

Review: 9500 Liberty

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9500 Liberty

In a way, it's sad that 9500 Liberty is such a timely and relevant documentary.

Opening at the Dobie tomorrow, the film chronicles a fierce and divisive immigration battle in Prince William County, Virginia, where the county board of supervisors enacted a law requiring police officers to question anyone they have "probable cause" to suspect is an undocumented immigrant. The Virginia law took effect in 2008, but the recent enacting of a similar law in Arizona gives 9500 Liberty a painful immediacy. The movie is a powerful statement about the continuing us-versus-them fight over our nation's immigration policies.

As America's demographic makeup rapidly changes, the recent history of Prince William County is increasingly familiar. For generations, the county had been a mostly white, mostly conservative semi-rural enclave. The booming economy of the past two decades brought a rapidly expanding population to the area, including many Latino immigrants seeking jobs in construction and service industries. The longtime residents never openly welcomed the immigrants (many of whom were undocumented), but for many years the two groups managed to coexist as neighbors, if not as friends.

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