Posts Tagged ‘film reviews’

SXSW Review: Girl Model

This haunting documentary opens on a huge ‘cattle call’ of girls from small villages in Siberia. They stand in bikinis, some with arms folded across their breasts, others with slumped shoulders, signs of obvious self-consciousness. They are here to audition for an opportunity to model in Japan, but most don’t look like future models at all. It looks more like a very large gym class lined up for weigh-in. They don’t flaunt or carry themselves in a presentational manner. No matter how pretty they may be, most of them look like gangly, innocent youngsters and that’s exactly what they are. As young as 13, they’re here because they dream of “getting out” and making money for their struggling families. But it will mean leaving behind everything they know and finding themselves in a strange land, at the mercy of a cruel industry.

When we first meet Ashley Arbaugh, an American scout who works exclusively for the Japanese modeling agency, she tells us she believes she’s “saving” these girls and giving them a chance in the west. But as we get a creepy feeling watching these minors being poked and prodded like so much market beef, and photographed in skimpy clothes so their bodies can be assessed and measured, Ashley fully admits that it’s the look of wide-eyed innocence they’re after. She then tells us that they pre-screen girls even younger than 13 in the villages. “Before anybody else gets there, we get the girls.”

A 13-year-old named Nadya is chosen from among the hundreds who showed up. Read the rest of this entry »

SXSW Interview: Kay McConaughey Raised A Good Boy and Some Hell Along the Way

Kay McConaughey in “Bernie”

Kay McConaughey (affectionately known as K-Mac) plays a small town gossip in the new film Bernie, directed by family friend Richard Linklater, and co-starring her son Matthew, whom you may have heard of.

Her character, Tassie, is one of the more memorable “locals” through which the film’s narrative is told. She plays a ballsy gal with plenty to say and steals the movie in her few brief scenes.

I sat down with K-Mac in the Lobby Lounge restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel while SXSW frenzy buzzed around us. Looking nowhere near her 80 years and having more energy than most kids I know, she chatted about the movie, her book, her famous son, and being a grandma.


DW: I’ve just come out of a roundtable interview with Matthew and Richard. They talked about you…

KM: (laughs) Yeah, well, Richard’s so low-key and sweet. I hope I get to see him in a suit before I die. I’ve never seen him in a suit no matter what the premiere is and I go to all of his.

DW: How did you get involved with the film Bernie?

KM: Rick called me and said, “There’s a part for you in this movie Bernie and I cannot imagine anybody playing Tassie but you.” I’m good friends with him and his family so it’s not like… I mean he just comes right out and says, “It’s you, K-Mac. It’s got you all over it.” So he emailed it to me and I said, “Rick, you’re right. That sounds like me.” I said I’d love to do it.

DW: The part you play is one of the townspeople, one of the gossips, and it all seems so natural. Was it ad-libbed or scripted?

KM: I ad-libbed. (laughs) A lot. Read the rest of this entry »

Austin’s Drafthouse Films distributes “Bullhead”, an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film

When we first meet Jacky he’s threatening someone with violence. We aren’t sure if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. We only know he’s a guy you don’t want to piss off.

As the story begins, we’re introduced to the strange world of black market hormones for cattle. Unlike in America where we consume copious amounts of hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals in our meat due to unscrupulous farm-factory processes, in Belgium, such things are illegal. But desperate cattle owners resort to buying hormones on the black market so their cows grow bigger, faster, and are turned around more quickly for a better profit. Like here, the animals are kept in dismal, cramped stalls and do not wander rolling green hills as commercials would have us believe. It’s a dark, grisly business.

Black market hormones are sold much like illegal recreational drugs. Mafia types bring the product in and sell to regular customers.  Thus unfolds a crime story involving a dead undercover police officer who was attempting to thwart local hormone trade, an informant who was raised in the close-knit community of cattle farmers, and the Vanmarsenille family who relies on the hormones to help them compete and maintain a viable business in a crumbling economy.

We soon learn that the informant, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval)  grew up with Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) and the two share a sad history.  Jacky was the victim of an unspeakable crime as a child that left him scarred for life: he is without testicles. Diederik witnessed the crime but was not allowed to testify because his father feared repercussions from the perpetrator’s powerful family.

The two boys were no longer allowed to play together, and lost touch until now, when they meet again as adults in a shady business meeting. Diederik is there to gather intel for the cops. Jacky is there to make a deal.  The moment is rich with tragic irony: The boy who couldn’t “tell” now “tells” for a living, but he’s suddenly forced to implicate the very person he would most want to protect.

Jacky has endured the shame of living in a community that knows about his disfigurement. He’s dependent upon testosterone drugs, not only to replace what his body can no longer produce, but also to give him a “high” in which he is strong, powerful… manly. Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Films of 2011

Apples and oranges. You can’t compare’em. Just like you can’t compare Woody Allen’s quaint “Midnight in Paris” with Terence Malick’s sprawling “The Tree of Life.”  So instead of ranking the best films of 2011, I’ll simply list them in alphabetical order. Suffice to say, each in its own way has left an indelible mark on the art of film. My personal criteria for making such a list is as follows:  artistic and technical merit, the likelihood that it will stand the test of time, the number of truly memorable scenes it contained, and the degree to which it achieved its aims in moving the audience.

The Artist – A toe-tapping, heart soaring delight that celebrates the art of silent film.
The Descendants – Alexander Payne’s layered and humanistic comedy/drama about loss and family.
Drive – An exercise in retro cool that solidifies Ryan Gosling’s ever increasing status as a badass.
Hugo – Martin Scorsese’s masterful homage to early cinematic innovation.
Midnight in Paris – Woody returns to form, still making us laugh and think after all these years.
Moneyball – Who’da thunk a movie about baseball statistics could have so much heart?
A Separation – An enthralling drama from Iran about a broken family. Foreign yet painfully familiar.
Take Shelter – An exercise in true suspense that heralds a storm, and the coming of director Jeff Nichols.
Tree of Life – Terrence Malick’s sweeping symphonic masterpiece about God and Man.
War Horse – Steven Spielberg’s old-fashioned epic about  humanity amid the inhumanity of war, and a horse who finds his way home.

“Melancholia”: It’s headed right for us!

Lars Von Trier has become a side-show act. After the raging misogyny of “Antichrist” made everybody at Cannes 2009 want to puke – (See Willem Dafoe ejaculate blood and Charlotte Gainsbourg cut off her own clitoris. Good times.)  - he returned in 2011 with “Melancholia,” a plodding meditation on well, melancholy, or depression to be more exact. Though “Melancholia” is not the shocker that “Antichrist” was, Von Trier still managed to offend as many people as possible by carrying on in a press conference about how he has sympathy for Hitler and the Nazis while poor Kirsten Dunst cringed miserably next to him. The problem with all that nonsense is that it becomes difficult to separate the Von Trier side-show from the main tent attraction. To be fair, a film should be judged on its own merits, separate and apart from previous efforts and controversies.

And so it was in the spirit of giving “Melancholia” a fair shake that I broke my personal promise to “never watch another Von Trier film as long as I live.” Perhaps I should be a better sport about female genital mutilation and the holocaust. …Sigh…

So, clean slate, fresh start, open mind, roll film.

The first 8 minutes of “Melancholia” provide some of the most beautifully intriguing images that I’ve ever seen, each one more lush, vivid, and mysterious than the last. For a moment, I began to think (and hope) that the film would be a sweeping visual symphony like Terrence Mallick’s “The Tree of Life.” Unfortunately, the remaining 128 minutes did not live up to the splendor of the overture. Read the rest of this entry »

“Extraterrestrial”, a Fantastic Fest review

Julio wakes up in Julia’s apartment. They are strangers. Julia is cleaning up after a night of who-knows-what which neither of them can remember. She’d like Julio to leave. Problem is, while they were passed out, a giant UFO descended upon the city prompting massive evacuations. Those who didn’t get out in time are now stuck where they are with the 4-mile-wide flying saucer hovering menacingly in the sky above them. Julio quickly parlays this into an excuse to stay with the girl.

Complicating matters is the sudden appearance of Julia’s sweet but clueless big oaf of a boyfriend, and her tragically obsessed next door neighbor who declined to evacuate because he knew Julia was still home. There they are… all together.

With delightful performances from Julian Villagran (Julio) and Michelle Jenner (Julia), this odd little comedy is very likely to win over any audience members who stumble in expecting an alien-invasion action flick.

The film unfolds like theatrical farce as the characters struggle to maintain secrets, one-up each other with snappy bon mots, and deal with ever-shifting loyalties.  Writer/director Nacho Vigalondo, known for his complicated, edgy sci-fi film called “TimeCrimes”, does something completely different here: he uses the specter of something big and weird going on outside to enable human comedy and drama to unfold inside.

Extraterrestrial’s simplicity is its genius.

4 of 5 stars.

“The Corridor”, a Fantastic Fest Review

"The Corridor" directed by Evan Kelly.

It’s one of those “cabin in the woods” things.

The film opens on a disturbing incident in which a group of buddies stumble into the retreat where they’ve been staying and find their best friend’s mom dead on the floor, and their pal (Tyler) freaking out in the closet. He breaks out and goes berserk, cuts some of his buddies, and is ultimately subdued. It is assumed that Tyler witnessed his mother committing suicide and just snapped, hence the weird outburst.

Cut to: 10 years later. Tyler walks through the woods making his way back to the cabin. Upon arrival, he gets rid of his hospital bracelet. Was he released? Or did he escape? His buddies show up, too. They’re older, wiser (kinda), with families (or not), and commitments (or not). A couple of them still bear visible scars from Tyler’s breakdown those years ago. But they’re here to forgive him and get back to the good old days.

The reunion is a dull affair. Lots of male bonding and blatant attempts to highlight the differences in their personalities (the dumb jock has kids, the smart one is infertile, yada yada). Their hijinks include football, rough-housing, and (semi) good-natured teasing. Read the rest of this entry »

The Truth Goes Up in Flames

“Incendiary: The Willingham Case”

The anti-intellectual movement in America is alive and well and very dangerous. It works its way into our institutions, social conventions, politics, and even the justice system. It opts for easy platitudes over complex details, broad generalizations over individual circumstances, quick justice over painstaking procedure.

Take The Willingham Case, for instance. Cameron Todd Willingham was tried and convicted of burning his three daughters to death based on faulty arson investigating techniques that were later proven invalid. Science is a nasty little nuisance in this case. Why complicate things with chemistry and forensic science when there are political careers to protect that depend on the infallibility of Texas Justice?

“Incendiary” is not an anti-death penalty movie. And it doesn’t seek to convince you of Willingham’s guilt or innocence. In fact, it’s pretty straight-forward about Willingham not being such a great guy. Its aim, though, is to shed light on a “justice” system that is so flawed, so full of self-serving motivation and political maneuvering, that even incontrovertible evidence is suppressed and willfully ignored at the highest levels.

Here’s the deal: Willingham woke up to smoke and fire and ran outside. His three small children were inside. Numerous reports state that Willingham had to be restrained in order to keep from going back into the house to save the children. He was handcuffed and strapped to a gurney in order to keep him under control. The children burned to death. Willingham was charged with arson. There was no motive, except that he’d been known to knock his wife about from time to time and he had no job. He wasn’t a particularly popular guy, so it didn’t sit well that he survived a house fire that killed his kids. Fire Marshal arson investigators determined that an accelerant was used. Willingham was convicted… and put to death. Read the rest of this entry »

The Dog Days of War

In 1971, Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” was groundbreaking and controversial. It was the director’s first non-western but it employed many of his trademarks including graphic violence and machismo themes. What it really had going for it was the novelty of the story’s structure, which starts slowly and builds to a brutal and shocking climactic battle.

Since then, revenge thrillers have become a staple at the multiplex, and therein lies the challenge for this remake directed by Rod Lurie and starring James Marsden and Kate Bosworth. The novelty for this sort of thing has worn off and like a drug that one develops a tolerance for, it takes more and more to shock an audience.

The remake involves a young couple, screenwriter David and his pretty actress wife Amy, who move into her old family home in small town Mississippi so that David can get some writing done. It doesn’t take long for David to rub the locals the wrong way. He’s one of those smart-alecky city slickers whose sneakers don’t have laces. His wire-rim glasses are a dead giveaway that he needs his ass kicked, apparently.

The locals are a hodgepodge of cliché – a crotchety town drunk and former head football coach (played with very broad strokes by James Woods), the “slow” one who may have inappropriate urges toward little girls, the wife’s high school sweetheart played by Alexander Skarsgard (best known as Eric Northman in HBO’s “True Blood”), and a gang of redneck buddies. Read the rest of this entry »

Gwynnie Brings the Plague

Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” starts off on a quietly foreboding note, quickly becomes harrowing, then loses its way with too much CDC procedural and not enough human drama, but ultimately comes full circle and leaves us with an effective, lingering unease.

We meet Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) on her way home from a business trip in Hong Kong. She’s got the sniffles. It gets worse. Quickly, lots of A-list stars are trotted out to let us know this thing is serious. Among the familiar faces are Matt Damon as Beth’s husband, Kate Winslet as a dedicated CDC first-responder, Laurence Fishburne as her boss, Jude Law as a blogging conspiracy theorist, Marion Cotillard as yet another doctor, and there’s more. Truly, the cavalcade of huge stars is a bit distracting, like those Irwin Allen disaster extravaganzas of the 70s. But this film is sharp enough that it doesn’t need to rely on that much high wattage to make it work. Each and every performance is solid and rounds out the ensemble nicely. Surprisingly, it’s the lesser-known Jennifer Ehle who makes the biggest impression. The impish sparkle in her eyes and her Mona Lisa smile make a character that exists largely for expositional purposes an awful lot of fun to watch.

As the epidemic spreads and we get the creeping feeling that this all seems very, very plausible, Soderbergh goes one better and has a bit of fun playing with contagion as a theme – fear, rumors, crime. Lots of things are “catching”. Read the rest of this entry »

Vera Farmiga Rises to “Higher Ground”

“Higher Ground” is a moving portrait of faith found and lost (in that order) based on the memoir “This Dark World” by Carolyn S. Briggs. But make no mistake; this is not snarky Hollywood taking a swipe at believers. Under the even-handed direction of Vera Farmiga, the film handles both the characters and subject matter with complexity and respect.

Vera Farmiga may not be a household name yet, though her face is likely familiar to audiences. As an actress, she’s been cranking out daring performances for some time now and the industry has taken note with numerous award nominations and wins (“Down to the Bone”, “Up in the Air”, “Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”). But “Higher Ground” will be the film that elevates her into mainstream consciousness. Her knack for registering a certain warmth and intelligence is on full display here, but the film’s salt-of-the-earth, poetic direction is the greater achievement.

We meet the lead character, Corinne, as a small child in an unhappy household. Her mother is too pretty and restless and her father is too drunk and self-pitying for there to be any harmony at home. But one day in vacation Bible school, Corinne believes she hears the still small voice of the Lord asking to be let into her heart, and so she commits herself to a life in Christ.

Years later, she’s a moon-eyed teenager (played effectively by real-life sister Taissa Farmiga) falling in love with a hippie songwriter named Ethan (Boyd Holbrook), who sings in a local band and has more than his share of girls to choose from. Sweetly, he only has eyes for Corinne. He pursues her, woos her, and way too soon the young lovebirds are forced to live the life of responsible adults. The handsome would-be rock star winds up breaking rocks instead to support his wife and baby. This is not the life of their dreams. Read the rest of this entry »

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