Romantic thriller Apart had its world premiere at SXSW earlier this month, and will be playing in competition at the Dallas International Film Festival on April 3 and 5. I interviewed star Josh Danziger and writer/director Aaron Rottinghaus while they were in Austin to promote the movie (read my review for more details).
But before I get into my conversation with Rottinghaus, allow me to take a moment to share what actress Joey Lauren Adams had to say, when I spent a few minutes chatting with her. Adams (Chasing Amy) hired Rottinghaus as an editor on her writing/directorial debut Come Early Morning, which Austin Film Festival in 2006 after a Sundance premiere earlier that year.
"In the process of editing [Come Early Morning], we became friends and he went above in beyond in helping me with my project," Adams told me. So she returned the favor to take a small but significant role in Apart.
"Once he gave me that first bit of direction, he was really good. And all at once he was my director and I was his actor, and I trust him. Aaron had a vision, whether you liked the film or not, and it was very thought out and very detailed. He did a great job on it, and he stuck with it." Would Adams work with Rottinghaus again? "In a heartbeat. As a director, or an editor."
Arguably the best thing about SXSW is discovering "new" talent, both onscreen and off. One of the world premiere films at SXSW 2011 was Apart, the feature directorial debut of Aaron Rottinghaus. The movie starred Texas native Josh Danziger, who worked on the original story with Rottinghaus (read the Slackerwood review). Both took time out of their whirlwind week to talk with Slackerwood about their romantic thriller, the story of a young man haunted by the past and the girl he cannot remember.
Below are excerpts from my conversation with Danziger, who was in town to support the movie and to celebrate making it in his home state of Texas. We're confirming he's also going to be in Dallas for the screenings of Apart at the Dallas International Film Festival in less than a week.
I have a confession to make: I really enjoyed Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, a new documentary by director James Moll that played SXSW this year.
Foo Fighters: Back and Forth traces the story of the band Foo Fighters from their start in 1995 to the recording of their current album. For those of you who don't know the Foo Fighters, it's the band David Grohl founded after the tragic death of his Nirvana band mate and friend Kurt Cobain.
One of the things I really liked about this documentary was how the story was told. Where a lot of documentaries are told using narration, this documentary was told using interviews of current and former band members. I really liked hearing the stories of the band from the people that actually lived it. I can imagine that Moll's background doing interviews for the Shoah Project has something to do with this.
This year at SXSW Film, I decided to spend less time in line and more at the satellite and smaller venues, and catching the Narrative and Midnight Shorts programs. Kudos to SXSW Film programmers Claudette Godfrey and Stephanie Noone who set up the short film lineup. Anyone who's read my AFF Selected Shorts or Fantastic Fest coverage knows I love the short film format, partly due to the small time investments for great rewards. I found myself on the edge of my theater seat in under 15 minutes for one film and brought to tears of joy by another in the next 15. Find out which films that I found were most engaging after the jump.
If you're not familiar with The Lady, or the Tiger? by Frank R. Stockton, take a minute to read that link and come back. Sucker Punch is Zack Snyder's answer to that question after he OD'd on 'shrooms and spent a night watching Moulin Rouge, Charlie's Angels and Inception, then fell asleep to Heavy Metal. The result is a mishmash of great ideas that doesn't know where it's going. With just a little more follow-through, it could have been a hit instead of the critical flop it will ultimately be remembered as.
Emily Browning, best known for her role in Lemony Snicket, plays Baby Doll, a girl attacked by her greedy stepfather after the death of her mother in hopes of securing her fortune. Instead of fleeing, she defends herself and her sister from the evil man, but a stray bullet kills the sister and the stepfather puts Baby Doll away, paying a very nasty orderly at the hospital to make sure she is lobotomized and can never bother him again.
Just as the doctor is about to perform the procedure, she yells "Stop!" and the scene shifts to an alternate-universe version of the hospital where the patients are instead burlesque dancers, and the orderly is the gangster-owner of the club where they are all forced to live and perform.
Now, from this point, we're left wondering, is this the "real" story, and the mental institute just a sick fantasy cooked up for paying clients? Or are we in some kind of schizoid embolism a la Total Recall? To confuse the issue only further, all the real action in Sucker Punch only happens in Baby Doll's mind when she dances. Her dance is so sensual, so captivating, that it freezes men in their tracks and makes her a hero to the other girls, though we never ever get to see her perform. Instead, we're transported to a third level of the dream where Baby Doll is a superhero fighting undead steampunk soldiers, giant robot samurai and angry mother dragons to the beat of reworked hits such as The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams." These scenes are truly epic, and the movie is worth watching just for (and only for) them, much like Knowing was worth watching if only for the disaster shots. The action and the music are like the fresh tasty hot dog inside a rotten moldy bun.
Did you miss Movies this Week last week? We're back, even though we're still recovering from SXSW.
Movies We've Seen:
Elektra Luxx -- Sebastian Gutierrez's second film featuring the title character (the first being Women in Trouble), focuses on Carla Cugino as a retired porn star. The first movie left me cold, so I skipped the sequel. Mike has seen it and can tell you more in his review. (Arbor)
I Saw the Devil (pictured above) -- This near-perfect Fantastic Fest 2010 selection is gritty, violent and suspenseful, and a must-see for those who appreciate Korean crime dramas and/or unapologetically dark revenge thrillers. Byung-hun Lee plays a government agent out for revenge after his fiancee is murdered. (Alamo Ritz)
Jane Eyre -- Arguably Charlotte Brontë's story of the reclusive Mr. Rochester and the stalwart young Jane Eyre is responsible for more undeserved forgiveness in relationships than any other classic story. Cary Fukunaga's interpretation of the classic novel is hurt by the running time, as the subtleties of the relationship in this gothic romance just don't have enough time to develop. Read Elizabeth's review for more. (wide)
In ninth grade I read Jane Eyre of my own volition; it wasn't required reading at my school. The novel was dark and romantic, so of course I adored it. I watched the melodramatic 1943 classic with Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles (and a very young Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited role). I haven't re-read the novel since and was unsure what to expect from this 2011 Jane Eyre film adaptation. Would any slight reference to Wide Sargasso Sea be made? (Answer: not really.) I found myself inferring certain things from that parallel novel as I watched Cary Fukunaga's take on Charlotte Bronte's original story.
Mia Wasikowska plays our heroine Jane as undiminished, wistful and a sort of realist. "I imagine things I'm powerless to execute," she confesses to her employer's housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench!). In flashbacks, we see how Jane's young fire slowly dims in her dealings with a spiteful aunt (Sally Hawkins) and then with the teachers at the autocratic school to which her aunt sends her. Her first position after leaving school is as governess to a French-speaking orphan who is under the guardianship of the imposing, darkly handsome and slightly shady Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender).
You probably know the story of Jane Eyre from here, but the relationship between Jane and the Rivers family who discover her stranded on the moor is worth a mention. Jamie Bell's St. John Rivers is a striking figure -- the last movie I remembered seeing Bell in was Nicholas Nickleby, and he's certainly filled out since then!
Carla Gugino plays the titular Elektra Luxx, a retired porn superstar making a living teaching an adult sex-ed class ("How to act like a porn star in bed"). She's just found out she's pregnant and is having a really bad week. She's suffering an existential crisis, worried about how she can be a good mother and still explain to her child what she used to do for a living. Just as she's dealing with this, people begin appearing in her life, making her question who she is and who she wants to be.
The movie, written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, looks like it would have been more suited to a playhouse stage than the silver screen. This, despite an impressive number of stars: Gugino, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kathleen Quinlan (Event Horizon, Apollo 13), Marley Shelton, Malin Ackerman, Timothy Olyphant, Justin Kirk and Julianne Moore. The dialogue, full of random non-sequiturs, meanders through each scene. A chance encounter with a former co-star, Holly Rocket (Friday Night Lights' Adrianne Palicki) spawns a tedious and completely disconnected subplot that follows Holly and her best friend on a vacation, culminating in the two falling in love.
Things become a little more clear upon learning Elektra Luxx is actually a follow-up to Gutierrez's 2009 release Women in Trouble. Elektra Luxx is a sequel to that virtually unseen flick with most of the same actors. Taken alone, it is a mess, with characters that appear out of nowhere even in the last 10 minutes of the film, as clunky dialogue explains their connection to Elektra. A friend is actually the mother of a spoiled trust-fund brat neighbor, for instance. The entire lesbian love-affair vacation should have been dropped, as it completely breaks the narrative of Elektra's story, involves characters who have no introduction (unless you've seen the first film), and frankly put me to sleep both times I watched the movie.
Typically I'm a staunch believer in the cinéma vérité style of documentary filmmaking, with little if any involvement on the filmmaker's part so I can feel immersed in the story. On the other hand, there's Austin filmmaker Turk Pipkin, who narrates and is seen in his documentary films including Nobelity, One Peace at a Time and now Building Hope. His latest film often focuses on The Nobelity Project, an Austin-based nonprofit led by the filmmaker and his wife Christy Pipkin. The Nobelity Project partnered with a remote low-income African community with great results for the local primary school, and so Pipkin promised to help build Mahiga Hope High, the first high school for the community, while connecting Kenyans with American supporters.
In Building Hope, viewers learn that in Kenya, primary school is free and mandatory but families have to pay their teenagers to attend high school. Making matters worse are the gaps in qualified teachers, high school tuition and poor conditions of the few existing high schools, including lack of clean water and sports facilities. Without a high school education, the children of Mahiga are left with few options in life. The Pipkins were determined to change this fact, by introducing the "1000 Voices for Hope" program with the goal of getting 1,000 donors to donate $100. Donors included Austin musicians Lyle Lovett, Emily & Martie of The Dixie Chicks and Willie Nelson, who stated, "That's a choir I want to sing in."
Made in Austin in 1969 with a cast of Hooper's friends, Eggshells is every bit a late 1960s film, a psychedelic drama about a group of students sharing a commune-like Austin house. Much of the film follows the students' typical activities -- this being 1969, many of them involve nudity and drug-fueled sociopolitical discussions -- but there also is an oddly mystical twist. In the basement is what Hooper describes as a "crypto-embryonic hyper-electric presence" that grows into a bulb-like form and manipulates the characters' lives.
Confused? So was I before I saw Eggshells last year, but fear not: It all makes sense -- sort of -- when you see the movie. While Eggshells is often quite bizarre, it's an intriguing film that shares many stylistic and thematic elements with Hooper's later work. It's also a dreamily nostalgic time capsule, a gloriously colorful document of life in late 1960s Austin. Fans of Austin-made independent cinema will find it fascinating.
Sponsored by Screen Door Film, the Austin Film Society and the Texas Independent Film Network, the Eggshells screening is on Friday, March 25 at 7:30 pm at the Austin Film Society Screening Room, 1901 East 51st St. Seating is very limited, so buy your tickets soon.
[Photo credit: "Tobe Hooper, Texas Film Hall of Fame 2009 Awards," by Jette Kernion]