Theatrical and DVD reviews.

AFF Review: Happy Ending


Happy Ending

Playing with genre conventions is not a new idea. Scream and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon deconstructed the contemporary horror convention; Adaptation and Stranger than Fiction flipped story conventions on their ears. So the idea of deconstructing a genre and making its devices an open part of the plot isn't revolutionary. Yet Atsuhiro Yamada's first feature, Happy Ending, is a charming little film that will likely make most cineastes smile.

Momoko (Nahana) unashamedly borrows horror films without paying for them from the neighborhood rental shop. Kuroda, a fellow film buff and frequent companion at the local second-run arthouse theater, keeps reminding her that she owes 52,700 yen in rental fees (nearly $600US), as well as trying to get her to watch some romances.  When Momoko drops a romance novel and picks it up at the same time as a handsome young man, her friend Maki is convinced Momoko is living a romance story. When the "prince" (Ryunosuke Kawai) keeps appearing, Momoko starts to believe it herself. 

Review: The House of the Devil


Tom Noonan in The House of the Devil

Just in time for the Halloween weekend, horror film The House of the Devil opens in theaters nationwide. This film is set in the 1980s, but takes viewers back even further to the psychological horror films of the late 1960s and 1970s, including horror classics Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. Like its predecessors, The House of the Devil delivers horror built on slowly built tension and Satan worshippers.

Jocelin Donahue (The Burrowers) plays Sam, a pretty college sophomore who accepts a babysitting job at a remote Victorian mansion deep in the woods despite the misgivings of her best friend, played by Greta Gerwig (Hannah Take the Stairs, Baghead), and lack of an actual baby to watch. There Sam meets Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), who don't seem quite right. As the night progresses and a lunar eclipse begins, things get even worse for Sam, culminating in climatic and final scenes worthy of classic horror.

AFF Review: Todd P Goes to Austin


Todd P Goes to AustinThe new Off the Record category at Austin Film Festival includes a documentary where the ultimate goal is to get to Austin for SXSW. Promoter Todd P set up a series of free, unofficial performances at SXSW, and eventually was invited to come back and put together an official showcase, as documented in Todd P Goes to Austin. When viewed as a performance documentary, Todd P Goes to Austin is a must-see for music fans.

Todd P Goes to Austin starts out with a mumble: director Jason Buim opens with a performance by Dan Deacon, and even when Todd P is talking, it's not clear what the focus of the film is really supposed to be.  The tagline touts it's a film about doing it yourself, but the focus is really on the performances and the travel to Austin from various locations by the highlighted bands, including Matt and Kim, Mika Miko, The Death Set, and Japanther. 

Todd Patrick, also known as Todd P, is a Brooklyn based DIY promoter who works with underground bands and performers. Little screen time is spent on the actual efforts required to set up the showcases and get the word out to  potential audiences. Instead, most of the movie is devoted to actual performances. It's hard to follow that two different SXSW festivals are covered. The film dwells significantly on the featured groups making their way to Austin, and shot by themselves, from car trouble to broken jacks, contributing to the DIY sensibilities.

AFF Review: Baghdad Texas


Baghdad Texas

The Austin Screens category at Austin Film Festival is a showcase of local emerging talent that might not otherwise be on everyone's radar. Arguably the best film in this category in 2009 is Baghdad Texas.

A fleeing Middle Eastern dictator's plane crashes. Three Texas ranchers coming back from a rowdy time in Mexico hit what they think is a Mexican illegal immigrant. When they look through his clothes, they notice foreign currency with the likeness of Brando (Al No'mani), the most wanted man in the world, and the scrambling begins.

Finances have forced Randall (Robert Prentis) to turn to exotic hunting to make ends meet, with the help of his son Limon (Ryan Boggus), ranch hand Seth (Barry Tubb), and a pragmatic housekeeper, Carmen (Melinda Renna, pictured above).  An eager FBI agent (Shaneye Ferrell) is looking to prove herself despite a lackadiasical boss. When the ranchers realize who they put in the back of their truck, the antics begin. As everyone pursues their own interest to comedic ends, the two illegals who occasionally work on the farm engage in spectator sports.

AFF Review: Simmons on Vinyl


Simmons on Vinyl

If the screenwriters for Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle hadn't had studio backing for their comedy, and ended up shooting the movie in their hometown with a cast of acquaintances and a budget of maybe $300, the resulting film might have ended up a lot like Simmons on Vinyl. Both movies hang a lot of comedy on the premise of a crazy night in pursuit of something that sounds very silly when first mentioned, but has value to the characters involved.

Director/co-writer Mark Potts plays Zeek, a college kid who is dying to go out on a date with the lovely Holly. We can tell Holly's not interested, but Zeek is so much in denial that he agrees to run an errand for her -- to go to her boss's house and pick up a record she needs for a party, even though she isn't inviting Zeek to the party. Zeek's friends Dwayne (William Brand Rackley) and Dwight (co-writer Cole Selix) agree that Zeek's just being used by Holly, but agree to help him out. However, it's not as simple as merely picking up the vinyl from one house. The errand balloons into an all-night adventure.

Review: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant


Vampire's Assistant

Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant was one of the Fantastic Fest gala events last month, and demonstrates that we just can't get enough vampire movies at the moment. This film is based on the popular series of books by Darren Shan called The Saga of Darren Shan, a fantasy-adventure about a teenager who unknowingly breaks a 200-year-old truce between two warring factions of vampires. Though the main character in the book is 12 years old, in the film Darren is 16. He is introduced to a fantastic world of sideshow freaks, vampires and creatures of unknown origins.

The exposition takes viewers on a fast track, so if you aren't familiar with the books you might be confused by references to the "Vampaneze." The special effects and scenery in Cirque Du Freak are visually striking, but they can't hide the stilted acting. John C. Reilly as Larten Crepsley has great comedic timing, but it is difficult to see the character instead of the star power of Reilly. The young stars Chris Massoglia and Josh Hutcherson do well for their first major film, but it is consummate actor William Dafoe who lends his own personal touch without overshadowing the character that really steals the show.

Review: Amelia



It's Oscar contender season, when the studios trot out the films they hope will capture the attention of the bearers of golden statuettes, and the box office revenue those little gold men bring.  One has to wonder just what Fox Searchlight was thinking when they chose to release Amelia.

It seems like a perfect match: Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) directing a cast of heavyweights, including Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston. Stuart Dryburgh had an Oscar nod for Best Cinematography for The Piano amongst his list of nominations and wins. Both editors, Allyson C. Johnson and Lee Percy, are seasoned professionals, and Johnson has worked on several Nair projects. The writers, Ron Bass (Rain Man, The Joy Luck Club) and Anna Hamilton Phelan (Girl, Interrupted, Mask) each have an Oscar nod. Two books about Earhart are used, including Susan Butler's East to the Dawn and Mary S. Lovell's The Sound of Wings, which should lend authenticity.

Review: Where the Wild Things Are


Where the Wild Things Are

Warning: The following review may contain spoilers for the few people unfamiliar with the book from which this movie is adapted.

Daring to adapt a beloved book is risky business. Any changes and someone is offended, and adding material is sacrilegious. But what about when the original author approves the changes? 

Maurice Sendak's much beloved, critically acclaimed children's book Where the Wild Things Are has become one of the most anticipated films of the year. Even the jaded have admitted to tears over the trailers alone. Unfortunately, the magic of the book and the trailers doesn't completely translate to the full-length feature. 

Despite only being 10 sentences long, the 1963 book has been imprinted on the mind of more than one generation as a most beloved tale of imagination and childhood ferociousness. "Let the wild rumpus start!" is an eternal meme guaranteed to bring smiles. 

Review: A Serious Man


A Serious Man

The Coen brothers' latest film, A Serious Man, is hard to categorize. It's not one of the light-hearted funny films like Raising Arizona ... its comedy is far darker than Burn After Reading. I liked it much better than No Country for Old Men, which just didn't grab me. This is a low-budget movie that is obviously not meant to appeal to a wide audience, but viewers who are smart enough and interested enough to get involved with this story will find it extremely rewarding. And perhaps a little frustrating -- well, that's the Coens for you.

The cast of A Serious Man has no stars -- at best, the characters actors might look vaguely familiar to you. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, the central character of the film. In the late 1960s, Larry is a mathematics professor at a small Midwest college -- up for tenure, but a little worried about his chances. He's having a run-in with a student who's dissatisfied with his grades. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is acting increasingly odd. And now his wife (Sari Lennick), apparently out of the blue, has decided she's in love with family friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and wants a divorce.

Review: Coco Before Chanel


Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in Coco Before Chanel

Coco Chanel is a name synonymous with a classic style, of simple lines and comfortable fit but not always for everyone. Such is the film Coco Before Chanel, a biopic by Anne Fontaine based on the book Chanel and Her World: Friends, Fashions, and Fame by Coco's official biographer Edmonde Charles-Roux. Fontaine's film is less about the events of Chanel's life and more a window into the provincial beginning and formative years of a woman who defied standards and became an internationally known icon.

Young Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel and her sister were abandoned in an orphanage after the death of their mother. As young women, the Chanel sisters become chanteuses in provincial France. While working as a part-time seamstress, Coco (Audrey Tautou) meets and becomes the courtesan of millionaire playboy Balsan, devilishly played by Benoît Poelvoorde. She moves into his country house, where she hides from his guests at the request of the baron. During this time Coco meets and drinks with Balsan's polo-playing friends, which includes the affluent and self-made Arthur "Boy" Capel, dashingly portrayed by Alessandro Nivola.

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