Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Austin Film Festival wrap-up

Having returned home after several days of fun at the Austin Film Festival, it’s time to reflect on the experience. (I’ll leave the lengthy wait at security in the Austin airport out of the discussion. That was a tense way to end the trip.) Travel hiccups notwithstanding, the festival was a bit lighter on star power than I expected (only a few of the films I saw had a Q&A session with filmmakers at its conclusion). However, the quality of the material was quite good. There wasn’t a bad movie in the bunch of the group I saw. And various awards could be in the future of a few of them. That said, I only caught a small amount of the overall lineup (170 were officially listed). But in its 17th year, the festival programmers clearly know what they’re doing and it was well organized and seemingly error-free at the showings I attended.
Compliments aside, here’s a brief rundown of the festival selections I got the chance to catch while in town.

As a study in baseball passion or insanity, “Ballhawks” focuses on a group of individuals who catch baseballs hit out of Wrigley Field onto Waveland Avenue in Chicago. Director Mike Diedrich presents the documentary as a labor of love to Chicago Cubs fans, in particular, but baseball fans in general can connect with the passion this group of die hards have for the game – at least to a point. The film sets its sights on several of the Ballhawks, including one who has pursued the hobby (or obsession, as some might think) for nearly 50 years, having caught over 4,000 baseballs during that span. The subject matter is fairly limited in its scope, but still entertains, helped by the narration of Bill Murray, one of the Cubbies’ biggest fans.
Grade: B

“Shelter in Place”
Photojournalist Zed Nelson’s documentary looks at pollution problems brought about in Port Arthur, Texas, by the “accidental” or “unscheduled” emissions from the numerous petro-chemical plants located in the community. The emissions, as the film makes clear, are protected by Texas law, as long as they are reported by the plants. Meanwhile, the residents, many of whom are poor, African-American and undereducated, largely feel powerless against the petro-chemical industry. As one resident explains, the plants can tie up a legal claim against them in court for years, while expenses for the plaintiff will continue to grow. The material is certainly compelling, and the documentary makes it abundantly clear that Port Arthur is no attractive vacation spot. There’s probably quite a bit more ground that could be covered here, with the film only clocking in at 48 minutes. But in its brief running time, it demonstrates how the power of one just doesn’t look like enough when you’re fighting an opponent and the laws that protect them.
Grade: B+

“Blue Valentine”
Focusing on the marriage of a young couple, “Blue Valentine” is most certainly not a romantic comedy. Garnering a lot of recent publicity for its NC-17 rating (currently under protest to the Motion Picture Association of America, and rightfully so), the drama is still more than two months away from its official release in theaters. But the acting on display by its stars, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, has already garnered some Oscar buzz. That’s for good reason, as both give passionate and entirely believable performances as a couple falling into and out of love. Director Derek Cianfrance jumps the film back and forth in time, tracing the initial sweet beginnings of a relationship, and the sour patches the two find themselves in during the present. There’s nothing truly groundbreaking in the story, which might be all too familiar for some. But it’s performed with such conviction that the emotional resonance is a bit difficult to shake.
Grade: A

“The Company Men”
Catching Ben Affleck right in the midst of a career upswing, writer/director John Wells’ film debut is very much a timely tale of corporate downsizing and the cold, cruel world of an overcrowded job market. Wells, who has plenty of experience on television (executive producer on “E.R.” and “The West Wing” are among his credits), lays out an eminently watchable, yet overly predictable story. It certainly helps having a stellar cast at his disposal (Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson and Kevin Costner are among the players). Still, the subject matter might hit a little too close to home for some people’s comfort. But that’s not saying that there’s a lot of relatable material here for the lower to middle class (most aren’t contemplating having to sell their Porsche or giving up their golf club membership). Still, the general idea of having a comfortable life pulled out from beneath you upon losing your job (and the accompanying sense of self-worth) is a possibility that makes “The Company Men” seem like a movie of the moment, much like last year’s “Up in the Air.”
Grade: B-

“Twelve Monkeys”
Terry Gilliam’s bleak and twisted vision of the future is aided by committed performances from stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt. The screenplay (by David and Janet Peoples, who were both in attendance for a special screening at the Alamo Ritz during the festival) jumps around in time, keeping the audience off balance, just like Willis’ character. As James Cole, an inmate who “volunteers” for an assignment to track the origin of a killer virus, Willis gives one the best performances of his career. The story is a little convoluted at times and leaves some ideas open for interpretation (an intentional action, explained David Peoples during a post-screening Q&A). But the dark material matches the visual sensibilities of Gilliam, who keeps the action moving towards a satisfying conclusion.
Grade: B+

“Welcome to the Rileys”
Largely fueled by its three lead performances, “Welcome to the Rileys” is a domestic drama that centers on a failing marriage between a couple (James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo), who have been unable to move on from the death of their teenage daughter several years ago. Taking a trip to New Orleans for a work convention, Doug Riley decides to stay there indefinitely after meeting Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a troubled runaway who is also a stripper/hooker. He takes an interest in helping her (and thankfully, not in creepy older man way), cleaning up her less-than-appealing house, and seeing a chance to offer fatherly guidance again. His wife, who has become agoraphobic in the years since her daughter’s death, makes the trek south from their Indiana home to try and save her marriage. The story doesn’t take too many surprising detours, and director Jake Scott (son of Ridley Scott) does a decent job of letting his great cast do the heavy lifting. If nothing else, it further demonstrates, much like “Adventureland” did last year, that Stewart has a future beyond her “Twilight” days.
Grade: B+

“Meek’s Cutoff”
Reuniting with director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”), Michelle Williams gives another strong performance (her second of the festival) as a determined settler making her way on the Oregon Trail in 1845. Her character is part of a small group that breaks off from a larger wagon train, choosing to follow Stephen Meek (a very scraggly-looking Bruce Greenwood), a guide who has led them astray. As the days turn into weeks, the group is losing food, water and patience with Meek, with one character even wondering aloud if the guide is incompetent or evil. Their situation is further complicated when they capture a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux), bringing along disagreement on what to do with him. Some, in particularly Meek, favor killing him, while others feel he might be their best chance at finding water and salvation. Reichardt has crafted an authentic look at pioneer life, choosing to frame the proceedings in an almost claustrophobic 4:3 screen ratio, rather than widescreen. Plus, there are long periods of near or complete silence on screen (bringing to mind sequences in 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”). It’s certainly a singular director’s vision that will captivate some people, while driving others to distraction.
Grade: B

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What's New in Blu? (Week of Oct. 19)

“Psycho” (R)
Starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam and Janet Leigh
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

One of the all-time great films that arguably isn’t even the best film of its director, Alfred Hitchcock. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch with a screenplay by Joseph Stefano, Hitchcock’s film has influenced countless number of filmmakers over the years. Heck, it practically launched the horror genre, and due in no small part by the perfectly creepy performance by Anthony Perkins (who shockingly wasn’t nominated for an Oscar), contains one of cinema’s most memorable villains, Norman Bates. Sure, the blood quotient is a little tame compared to most horror movies these days. But unlike most of those same films, “Psycho” can still deliver the chills by actually building suspense. And that Bernard Herrmann score is as unforgettable as that classic shower scene that it accompanies.
Grade: A+

Other releases:
“Apocalypse Now” (R)
Starring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne and Dennis Hopper
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

“Moulin Rouge” (PG-13)
Starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh
Directed by Baz Luhrmann

“Please Give” (R)
Starring Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall
Directed by Nicole Holofcener

“Predators” (R)
Starring Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins and Laurence Fishburne
Directed by Nimrod Antal

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (R)
Starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
Directed by Jim Sharman

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What's New in Blu? (Week of Oct. 12)

“Three Kings” (R)
Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Nora Dunn, Jamie Kennedy, Myketi Williamson, Cliff Curtis
Directed by David O. Russell

A war-era movie that has more on its mind than gunfire and explosions, “Three Kings” is by turns exciting, funny, serious and intense. Featuring an impressive performance by George Clooney, clearly demonstrating his ability to hold the screen as a leading man, director David O. Russell brings a unique visual style and strong pacing to the proceedings. With the 1991 Gulf War in its last days, a map is discovered by several soldiers that would seem to indicate a hidden cache of gold bullion stolen by Saddam Hussein’s troops. Sgt. Maj. Archie Gates decides to lead the soldiers (including Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze, in a rare acting role) on a treasure hunt. Predictably, things don’t go quite how the soldiers want. But the direction the story takes and how it is resolved isn’t so predictable. While the film does have a definitive political view, it thankfully avoids getting bogged down in it. Russell keeps the action moving, as it serves the story, even finding a way to lighten the mood in a tense scene with some music from the band Chicago on the soundtrack. It’s an example of a creative moment in a movie that’s filled with them.
Grade: A-

Other releases:
“Deep Blue Sea” (R)
Starring Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, LL Cool J, Jacqueline McKenzie, Michael Rappaport, Stellan Skarsgard and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Renny Harlin

“Jonah Hex” (PG-13)
Starring Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Michael Shannon, Michael Fassbender
Directed by Jimmy Hayward

“Leaves of Grass” (R)
Starring Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Dreyfuss and Susan Sarandon
Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

“Red Dragon” (R)
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Directed by Brett Ratner

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Austin Film Festival line-up

The 2010 edition of the Austin Film Festival (its 17th in total) is set to start later this month (Oct. 21, to be exact), and I plan to be there for it. Well, at least a portion of it. The full line-up was recently revealed and it looks to be a great one, filled with an eclectic mix of genres and sure to produce a decent dose of star power at its various premieres. While Austin is well established as an outstanding live music city, featuring festivals that can stand with the best of them (South by Southwest and Austin City Limits), it has been building a strong reputation for its film offerings as well. South by Southwest also includes a great film festival (which I attended last year), and draws a lot of big names to attend it, along with Fantastic Fest and the Austin Film Festival, among others. That’s saying nothing of the numerous celebrities that live in, work in or frequent the Texas capital.

But enough about the entertainment industry standing of the city; let’s look at some of the festival’s schedule. Some of these films have been making the festival circuit in recent months, while a number of others will be making their U.S. or regional debut in Austin later this month.

Although I’d love to go to so many of these, time and scheduling conflicts will undoubtedly play a part in what I’ll ultimately be able to catch. But I’m excited to be able to view a number of films (and possibly the stars and filmmakers that are responsible for them). The standing in line to do so? Not so much.

Here’s a few of the films I’ve got my eye on (with accompanying trailers, to boot). Rest assured, there will be others. Keeping in mind that I won’t be able to see all of these, those that I do see, I’ll report back on upon my return.

“127 Hours”

The new film from 2008 AFF Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award Recipient Danny Boyle and the Academy Award winning director of the 2008 Best Picture, “Slumdog Millionaire” (also the 08 AFF Audience Award Winner), “127 Hours” is the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston's remarkable adventure to save himself after a fallen boulder crashes on his arm and traps him in an isolate canyon in Utah. Over the next five days Ralston examines his life and survives the elements to finally discover he has the courage and the wherewithal to extricate himself by any means necessary, scale a 65 foot wall and hike over eight miles before he is finally rescued. Throughout his journey, Ralston recalls friends, lovers, family, and possibly the last two people he ever had the chance to meet.


The tale of the fluctuating group of men who have been chasing baseballs and dreams outside of the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field, as long as it has been there. Then, 2004 World Series changes everything; the Cubs have a chance of winning. These increased expectations have heated up the competition for home run balls hit onto the street to a fever pitch, while the imminent Wrigley Field expansion threatens this century-old pass-time. The filmmakers are clearly Cubs fans, making this documentary an intimate foray into a world of baseball passion. As the baseballs fly out the stadium, dreams soar with them, hope for not only victory, but the chance to be part of it by catching a fly ball. Narrated by Bill Murray.

“Black Swan”

Visionary director Darren Aronofsky, takes a thrilling and at times terrifying journey through the psyche of a young ballerina whose starring role as the duplicitous swan queen turns out to be a part for which she becomes frighteningly perfect. Following the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her retired ballerina mother who zealously supports her daughter's professional ambition. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Seymour Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice. But Nina has competition: a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who impresses Leroy as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side with a recklessness that threatens to destroy her.

“Blue Valentine”

On the far side of a once-passionate romance, Cindy and Dean are married with a young daughter. Hoping to save their marriage, they steal away to a theme hotel where they went years earlier, when they met and fell in love—full of life and hope. Moving fluidly between these two time periods, "Blue Valentine" unfolds like a cinematic duet whose refrain asks, where did their love go? Framing the film as a mystery whose answer lies scattered in time and in character, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance constructs an elegant set of dualities: past and present, youth and adulthood, vitality and entropy. The rigor of his process is visible throughout the film. Eliminating artificial devices, he has only the truth of the characters to work with.


The inspirational true story of a sister's unwavering devotion to her brother. When Betty Anne Waters' (two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank) older brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is arrested for murder and sentenced to life in 1983, Betty Anne, a Massachusetts wife and mother of two, dedicates her life to overturning the murder conviction. Convinced that her brother is innocent, Betty Anne puts herself through high school, college and, finally, law school in an 18-year quest to free Kenny. She pores through suspicious evidence mounted by small town cop Nancy Taylor (Academy Award nominee Melissa Leo), meticulously retracing the steps that led to Kenny's arrest. Belief in her brother pushes Betty Anne and her team to uncover the facts with the hope of exonerating Kenny.

“The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan”

Mary Nolan lost her husband on June 16, 1966 when joined the Army and never came home. Questions swirl around his disappearance: did McKinley become disillusioned with the mission in Vietnam? Is he a deserter? Is he still alive? The stories of McKinley Nolan are many. In 2006, Lt. Dan Smith may have seen Nolan alive. He may have married a Cambodian woman or been killed by the Khmer Rouge, but director Henry Corra does more than answer questions. The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan is a heart wrenching documentary that explores the ideas of war, home, and love, and the triumph of hope in the human heart.

“Fair Game”

A suspense-filled glimpse into the dark corridors of political power, Fair Game is a riveting action-thriller based on the autobiography of real-life undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose career was destroyed and marriage strained to its limits when her covert identity was exposed by a politically motivated press leak. As a covert officer in the CIA's Counter-Proliferation Division, Valerie leads an investigation into the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Valerie's husband, diplomat Joe Wilson, is drawn into the investigation to substantiate an alleged sale of enriched uranium from Niger. But when the administration ignores his findings and uses the issue to support the call to war, Joe writes an editorial outlining his conclusions and ignites a firestorm of controversy.

“High School”

With echoes of the work of John Hughes and Judd Apatow, “High School” is the tale of a valedictorian whose first hit of pot coincides with his first drug test. Determined not to go down, he teams up with the local stoner to concoct an ambitious plan to get his entire graduating class to face the same fate, and fail. Every thing seems to go just as planned until the town’s biggest nutjob, Psycho Ed (a hysterical Adrien Brody) barges into the school looking for the stash the guys stole from him, leading all hell to break loose amongst their now-stoned classmates. Featuring not just a unique cast of teachers, including Colin Hanks and Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson), but also a brand new score from Harold Faltermeyer – the composer behind the iconic music of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun.”

“I Love You, Philip Morris”

This notorious Jim Carrey comedy is now off the shelf, but you may only think you’re ready for it. Based on the true story of Steven Russell, a Dallas cop, who is happily married to Debbie, when he comes to the sudden realization that he’s gay. Steven rejects his old life and begins to pursue his new lifestyle flamboyantly in Miami. Despite his history as a police officer, he becomes a con man to earn money. His attempts at conning land him in the state penitentiary where he meets the love of his life – Philip Morris (Ewan MacGregor). Steven is committed to freeing Philip from jail and having a life together. At times romantic and comedic, “I Love You, Phillip Morris” is a love story unlike any other.

“Make Believe”

“Make Believe” follows the story of six junior magicians from the U.S., South Africa, and Japan. It shows their introductions into the world of magic, and their fates as they compete for the title of Teen World Champion at the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas. But, the world of magic isn’t immune to emotionality. As these young Merlins grow up, they can’t escape the quirkiness and differences associated with their craft, and, in some cases, the solitude. The magicians of Make Believe will work their own bit magic into your heart, as they share their intertwining stories and passion for this unique hobby (that they hope to turn into a career). Produced by the team behind “The King of Kong.”

“Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story”

Monopoly originally became popular during the Great Depression. Since then it has been played by over a billion people and become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Narrated by Zachary Levi, Under the Boardwalk captures fascinating stories about the game and those who play it. The filmmakers explore Monopoly’s roots in an anti-capitalist political platform to its eventual transformation into a game about getting rich quick. The filmmakers also investigate the psychology of the game, and game experts reveal the best strategies for winning. Under the Boardwalk also explores the pop cultural and social history of the game. This quirky documentary features eccentric collectors and players and exciting worldwide tournaments.

“Welcome to the Rileys”

An emotional journey that takes us through grief, self-reinvention and healing. The Rileys have been struggling in their marriage since losing their teenage daughter. Once a happily married couple, Lois (Melissa Leo) and Doug (James Gandolfini) have grown distant. Lois has become agoraphobic, while Doug finds their home depressing. Looking to get away, he goes on a business trip to New Orleans. He meets Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a teenage runaway. Despite her unsettling demeanor, Doug immediately recognizes innocence in Mallory. He realizes she is in desperate need of guidance, something he has been longing to provide. The opportunity to care and protect Mallory supplants the void Doug's marriage has left in his heart, and brings new meaning to his life.