Theatrical and DVD reviews.

Review: Everybody's Fine


Everybody's Fine with Robert DeNiro

I'm not a fan of movie trailers. I like a short teaser, but three-minute trailers -- for example, the Edge of Darkness trailer currently playing in theaters --  that appear to reveal the entire plot bother me. Even more so are the misleading trailers. Yes, you need to entice folks in to the theater, but I'm quite baffled at the main trailer for Everybody's Fine, the American adaptation of the 1990 film Stanno Tutti Bene with Marcello Mastroianni. This trailer reminded me of the recut trailer for The Shining, depicting a happy-go-lucky about a boy and his dad. How could such a somber film be portrayed as a joyful coming home movie?

Much like Massimo De Rita's original screenplay for Stanno Tutti Bene, everybody's far from fine -- widower Frank Goode (Robert De Niro) realizes that his only connection to his children had been his wife, so he sets out to visit each of them. Things aren't as they seem, as the viewer sees that his adult children are hiding the truth from their father. A sibling in trouble, drug use, divorce, an illegitimate child -- these are all issues that have been kept from Frank's view. But were they? The implication is that his wife may not have always shielded him, but rather he chose to ignore the signs. His journey is not just revealing of his children's secrets, but also an opportunity for self-examination.

Review: Adrift in Tokyo


On Tuesday night, Fantastic Fest held a special screening of Satoshi Miki's Adrift in Tokyo, a film the fest organizers tried to get for FF2008, and one that hasn't any U.S. distribution.  Thanks to a special arrangement, the film is getting a special engagement run at the Alamo Ritz, which kicked off with a free screening primarily for Fantastic Fest badge holders. 

On a purely technical level, Adrift in Tokyo doesn't really fit into the Fantastic Fest programming categories other than being, well, fantastic. Austin Film Festival goers who fell in love with another Japanese film, Happy Ending, are sure to love this quirky, surreal piece of cinema. The Keep Austin Weird crowd will want to make Tokyo a sister city as well after viewing the eccentric leads and the quirky random characters that wander in and out of the film.

Review: Ninja Assassin


Ninja Assassin

V For Vendetta director James McTeigue and producers Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers join forces again to splatter the screen with gore galore in Ninja Assassin. This film is not for the weak of heart or stomach -- be prepared for graphic dismemberment and fountains of blood. Ninja Assassin has displaced Daybreakers on my list for the amount of blood used in a film production.

The story centers around Raizo (Rain), a renegade ninja from the Ozunu clan. The clan is a secret organization that kidnaps young children, training them to become silent killers. After the merciless killing of the female ninja who touched his heart, Raizo denounces his Ozunu family. Skilled in the use of a kusarigama weapon, Raizo takes revenge on his former family by executing them.

Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox


Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's love child with the spirit of Roald Dahl, is destined to top quite a few Best Of lists this year.  There's really no other way to start a review of Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Fox (George Clooney) and Felicity (Meryl Streep) are living in a cozy little warren, but Fox dreams of something bigger. After they move into a tree, Fox can't resist the siren's call of returning to his thieving ways. It's very much a Dahl story and a Wes Anderson one, for the betterment of both. Fox and Felicity have a misfit son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman) with the quirky angst of a typical Anderson child of larger-than-life parents. 

The story includes an equal amount of self-awareness and silliness, set to music that will make even a grumpy adult regress to childhood. With the exception of a rat and "Boggis Bunce and Bean, three farmers equally mean," all the characters have an earnestness that lends a disarming charm. The energy is in part because Anderson had his actors re-create some of the scenes when recording their voices. So characters running around under a tree was recreated with actors in a field running around under a tree. That playful sensibility is infused through every scene.

Review: Old Dogs


Old Dogs

Just in time for the holidays, John Travolta and Robin Williams team up for the family comedy Old Dogs. The premise of the story is that two longtime friends and business partners find their lives turned upside down when strange circumstances lead to them being placed in the care of 7-year-old twins.

With the encouragement of buddy Charlie (John Travolta), Dan (Robin Williams) gets wild during a night in South Beach which apparently results in more than a 24-hour marriage, hangover and annulment. When Mommy aka South Beach Vicki (Kelly Preston) is ordered by the court to serve two weeks in jail after chaining herself to a tree in protest, Dan offers to take care of the kids. Screwball comedy ensues, Japanese businessmen are both impressed and offended by the antics of the buddy team along with their junior executive, played by Seth Green.

Review: The Twilight Saga: New Moon


New Moon

Probably the most anxiously awaited sequel of the year, The Twilight Saga: New Moon is breaking records for pre-sold sellouts as Twilight fans prepare for the second installment in the series. Director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy) takes the helm of this teen romance/fantasy, with screenplay writer Melissa Rosenberg returning to bring Stephenie Meyer's novel to life.

Bella (Kristen Stewart) and "vegetarian" vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) begin to publicly display their romance, much to the chagrin of her other friends including childhood friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Following a potentially fatal incident at Bella's 18th birthday party, the Cullen family abandons the town of Forks, Washington. Bella is heartbroken and inconsolable, isolating herself completely from all friends -- until Jake helps her refurbish a pair of old motorbikes. Their relationship helps her to slowly heal from the loss of Edward.  However, it turns out that as a member of the Quileutes tribe, Jake has his own secret supernatural powers to deal with, which are tied to the reason why Edward ended his relationship with Bella.

Review: The Blind Side


Sandra Bullock hasn't had the most consistent track record in recent years. For every Infamous, she's got an All About Steve and The Proposal. It's frustrating, because she has it in her to be an impressive actress.  Thankfully, she did The Blind Side with John Lee Hancock to even out the balance.

This "football is salvation" film opens with an explanation of football with a voiceover by Bullock. It seems like a gimmick, but it actually sets up the story well, and underscores Bullock's portrayal of the real-life woman, Leigh Anne Touhy.  It's a case of the truth being stranger than fiction; few would accept this story if it weren't based on the real-life story of NFL player Michael Oher, as adapted from Michael Lewis's book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game

Review: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire



One of the most anticipated films at Austin Film Festival this year was Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, a movie that is both a condemnation of "the system"and a tribute to the human spirit.

It's set in 1987, when the AIDS scare is in full swing, and an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence. The epidemic of teen pregancies is being treated with punitive action, and girls like Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) are the epitome of failure of the system. Illiterate, raped, abused and tormented, Precious is a walking ghost with no hope other than a fantasy life where she's loved, and occasionally white, slender, and gorgeous. Precious has sailed through school despite never even doing homework or being able to read, and usually only noticed by bullies.  When she's told by her principal she's being expelled, it seems like that's it for her, but it's just the beginning.

Review: The Eyes of Me


Chas of The Eyes of Me

The documentary The Eyes of Me, which screened at the Cinema Touching Disability Festival earlier this month, presents an extraordinary look at four blind teenagers living in Austin. Their stories unfold over the course of a year at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), a public residential high school. Nationally, over 9,000 students attend similar residential schools. Director Keith Maitland worked closely with the film’s subjects to produce sequences of stylized rotoscopic animation to complement the film’s observational aesthetic. Created from over 250 hours of footage, this documentary captures a visually engaging and textured portrait of its characters’ lives.

"How do you see yourself, when you can't see at all?" The stories of the film’s central characters offer a perspective on growing up, fitting in, and preparing for the future. Forced to confront the world without sight, the high-school students share their thoughts, perceptions and inner-visions of the outer world. 

The Eyes of Me follows their high-school experiences of dating, academic responsibilities, fitting in, family issues and preparing for college over the course of one dynamic year. High school senior Chas wants greater independence, and therefore he leaves the school’s dorms to live independently in his own apartment. His greatest passion is creating hip-hop music. When Chas drops out of school halfway through his senior year, his resolve to chart his own path is tested.

DVD Review: Gretchen



After wishing for more than three years that Gretchen would become publicly available so I could persuade people to see it, I'm happy to report that the locally made feature is now available on DVD. Watchmaker Films, with its usual attention to detail, has given the film a very nice release with some meaningful extras.

Gretchen premiered in 2006 at SXSW, then won director Steve Collins the Best Dramatic Feature award at LAFF that summer. It's appeared on the Sundance Channel and was screened here as part of Austin Film Festival's "New Directions Summer Film Series" this year.

The title character (Coutrney Davis) is a tragically awkward high-school girl, out-of-step with the world in her turtlenecks and heavy sweaters and plastic hair ties. Gretchen likes Ricky Marichino (John Merriman), who envisions himself as a rebellious biker dude, but he treats her like dirt and eventually her temper flares in a destructive way. Further adventures land her with similar guys, and she eventually has to decide how she wants to deal with them and with herself.

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