Lone Star Cinema: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room posterThe names Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow are not as prevalent in the media as they were in the last decade. These men, behind the success (such as it was) and severe failure of Enron, were eventually found guilty of fraud and other charges.

The 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is based on the book of the same name. Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) interviews the book's authors, journalist Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, along with journalists, political figures and former Enron employees. Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich), who could narrate practically anything and lend it a certain credence, talks of the bravado and bluff in the history of the energy-trading company based in Houston. 

These interviews and Coyote's narration speak to the shenanigans going down at the once-praised company. The "macho culture" at the business is described, corraborated by video clips from an extreme motocross trip and discussion of one executive's love for strippers (with requisite strip club footage). Audio of male traders making rude and conspiratorial remarks is played over scenes from the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis. In such a case, it's not shocking that a woman, Sherron Watkins, turned whistleblower against Enron.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts the real-life events as a sort of morality tale, with many of the interviewees speaking about the lousy ethics of the company's business and their "synergistic corruption."  The director includes C_SPAN video of Skilling before a Senate committee, lying about his part in the faulty financing Enron was using.  Because the company appeared to be doing so well -- they were making loads of money, anyway -- any outside person who tried to ask important questions about the business or look closer at their dealings faced repurcussions.

aGLIFF Announces Opening-Night Film, Is Crowdfunding Too

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aGLIFF logoFirst of all, in case you hadn't heard, it's called aGLIFF again. Polari is still the name of the nonprofit that organizes the annual Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, but the film festival's traditional name has prevailed.

Now that I've established that, here's the news. aGLIFF has announced its opening-night film for this year's fest -- and the dates of the fest are news too, since they've changed. aGLIFF will run from September 10-14, 2014, at the newly-renovated Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. (So now you know the theater has to be at least sort of ready by then.)

Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine will open the fest on Wednesday, September 10. The documentary focuses on the late Matthew Shepard's personal life, from friends' and family's point of view. Director Michele Josue and Shepard's parents will be there for a post-screening discussion. aGLIFF also announced three other films in the lineup -- I've included the descriptions at the end of this article.

In addition, the film festival is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to enhance this year's festival experience. The funds raised will help bring in more filmmakers and special guests. The goal is $7,500 but it's a "flexible funding" campaign, so aGLIFF can keep what's raised even if it's short of the goal. Perks include tickets to films and parties during the fest, all-access badges, and ads in the program. Give enough money and you can be on the shorts jury.

Slackery News Tidbits: July 28, 2014

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2014 Texas Book Festival posterHere's the latest Austin and Texas film news.

  • Slackerwood isn't at San Diego Comic-Con this year but plenty of Austin people are, including local filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Indiewire has a roundup of the Sin City: A Dame to Kill For panel with Rodriguez, co-director Frank Miller, and several cast members. The article also includes a new (short) red-band trailer for the Sin City sequel, which hits theaters August 22.
  • We don't normally include images with Slackery News Tidbits, but the newly revealed 2014 Texas Book Festival poster (pictured right) featuring the Texas Theatre in Seguin is so gorgeous, I couldn't resist. (Someone tell me how to get one of these, please.) In addition, the festival announced eight authors that will attend -- quite an eclectic bunch, from Martin Amis to Ziggy Marley, and from Valerie Plame Wilson to chef Lidia Bastianich. Texas Book Festival runs from Oct. 25-26 ... as usual, conflicting with Austin Film Festival, and creating hard choices for Austin film/literary fans (start building up your stamina now so you can do both!).
  • Have you seen the 2013 drama Pit Stop yet? The Texas-shot feature from Austin filmmaker Yen Tan is streaming on Netflix Instant now. Debbie reviewed it at Sundance 2013 and said it "provides an intriguing glimpse of love and romance in the small towns that so many of us drive through without a second thought on the lives of its inhabitants." Pit Stop received an AFS Grant for distribution last year. (via Don Swaynos)
  • Over at Paracinema, Bryce Wilson discusses movies adapted from Texas author Joe Lansdale's novels/stories, including the latest film adaptation, Cold in July (Don's review).
  • Finally -- in case you missed it -- last week, Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott released a campaign ad to play before movies at Regal Cinemas, in which he speaks to the camera while sitting with a movie-theater audience. Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League took issue with the ad's seeming endorsement of talking and texting during movies, and the Drafthouse hastily assembled the following Drafthouse "Don't Talk" ad. (Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis responded on Twitter with "I may have spoken for 11 hours, but even I know it's never OK to talk at the movies.")

Movies This Week: July 25-31, 2014

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 Lucy

The Austin Film Society begins a very rare series this Sunday afternoon at the Marchesa called "The Sepia Screen." They'll be spotlighting 35mm "race" films from a special collection at Southern Methodist University from the days when movie theaters were segregated. This weekend, they'll be screening a 1946 short called Vanities, a 1946 feature called Dirty Gertie From Harlem U.S.A. and 1949's feature Souls Of Sin. Elizabeth's preview has details plus some insights on the series from AFS programmer Lars Nilsen.

On Tuesday evening, AFS is hosting Two Step, a locally-shot SXSW 2014 favorite (Don's review). Director Alex R. Johnson and composer Andrew Kenny (The Wooden Birds, The American Analog Set) will be in attendance for a Q&A. The current AFS Essential Cinema series is closing out on Thursday evening with Liv and Ingmar. After filling the Marchesa's screen over the last few weeks with some of their greatest collaborations, now you'll get to see this 2012 documentary that examines the relationship between Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman. The film is presented from Liv's point-of-view, interviewed in the house that she lived in for many years with Bergman. 

Over at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, tomorrow morning you can check out a free Kid's Club screening of the Disney classic Pete's Dragon in 35mm at noon. Later in the afternoon, they'll also be paying tribute to the late James Garner with a 35mm screening of 1964's The Americanization Of Emily, which also stars Julie Andrews.

Review: Lucy

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lucy posterIn Luc Besson's unfortunately dumb latest film, Scarlett Johansson plays a character whose brain is suddenly more powerful than anyone else's on earth. The events that unfold don't require much thinking, though; Lucy is a schlocky sci-fi that never lives up to the talent involved or the sense of anticipation it tries to establish.

The trouble starts when Lucy (Johansson), a young American going to school in Taiwan, gets caught up with an obnoxious cowboy who drags her unknowingly into a dangerous situation. With lightning speed, she's forced to act as a drug mule by a vicious crime boss (Oldboy's Min-sik Choi) aiming to hook people on a new conscious-altering synthetic substance.

Things take a turn when Lucy ends up absorbing a large amount of the strange drug herself, and from there she is no longer a normal human. Increment by increment (noted by in-your-face title cards along the way), she finds herself in possession of more and more of her brain's capacity (regular people supposedly only use 10 percent of their brains, and she's hurtling towards 100 percent). With each step she becomes better able to manipulate her surroundings through telekinesis as her human qualities fall away.

Part revenge fantasy, part science puzzle and a whole lot of nonsense, Lucy never stops to take a breath as it jumps from Taiwan to Paris and picks up speed as the heroine's brain continues to evolve. Terrible one-liners and illogical plot points prevent the movie from being anything close to immersive, however, and even Johansson's confident and dedicated performance isn't enough to save the fact that this movie is a mess of cliches and artlessly violent interactions between robotic Lucy and the cartoonish bad guys.

Over-the-top nature sequences (Tree of Life minus the subtlety) are jarringly intercut with standard action scenes, and the presence of Morgan Freeman as a professor who is Lucy's only hope of explaining what's happening to her is either very cheeky or extremely lazy. His scientist character explains what's going on like he's narrating a PBS nature show, but his booming voice and calm, comforting presence end up feeling like one of a million shortcuts taken to reach a payoff that never materializes.

AFF Adds Panelists to 2014 Conference

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AFF logoThe Austin Film Festival just sent me their latest email newsletter with a list of new panelists for the 2014 conference, and I thought I'd share it with you. And yes, there's a local filmmaker in the list. I should not even have to tell you which one, since we've written about her movies enough that you can figure it out.

Here's the list:

You can read a complete list of 2014 panelists on the AFF website. Austin Film Festival runs from October 23-30 this year.

Also, don't forget that the next film in AFF's "1968" series is Rosemary's Baby, which screens next Tuesday, July 29 at 7 pm at the Texas Spirit Theater in the Texas State History Museum [tickets].

Shorts Break: Meet 'Keith and Heath'

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Keith and Heath

Shorts Break spotlights Austin and Texas short films that you can watch right here and now ... take a break and take a look!

For the inaugural edition of Shorts Break, I decided to go with puppets. You can't go wrong with puppets (just ask John Oliver), especially if there's a catchy tune too.

Keith & Heath is a short comedy from Andy Young, and if I'd written this two months ago, I would have called him "Austinite Andy Young" ... but he's just moved to Los Angeles after graduating from The University of Texas at Austin. Keith & Heath is his undergraduate thesis film. Young also worked on the Austin-shot feature Intramural. Rumor has it (okay, his Facebook page has it) that he's working for some other former Austinites this summer, the Duplass brothers. Besides being a filmmaker, he also contributes to Moviemaker Magazine (check out his recent interview with Richard Linklater).

AFS Screening Preview: Lars Nilsen on 'The Sepia Screen'

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poster for Dirty Gertie from Harlem USASouthern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas owns an archive of 1930s and 1940s-era films -- shorts, newsreels and features -- made specifically for black audiences of the time.  These historic reels were found in a Tyler, Texas warehouse in 1983, and the team at SMU's G. William Jones Video and Collection has restored and digitized the movies.

You can view the films online, or if you're in Austin, watch a selection that Lars Nilsen, Austin Film Society Programmer, has compiled from the collection. "The Sepia Screen" program will play at the Marchesa on Sunday, July 27 at 2 pm [tickets info].

The 35mm films screening this Sunday include the short Vanities (1946), Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (1946) starring Francine Everett, and Souls of Sin (1949).

I talked (via email) to Nilsen about this upcoming program.

Slackerwood: How did you learn about this specific archive at SMU?

Lars Nilsen: I'm a big fan of these films and I was researching them when I ran across the archive and naturally the wheels turned in my head. I contacted them last year and they told me the films were on tour in South America, but I made plans to eventually bring them here to Austin.

What are your thoughts on the cultural relevance of these forgotten works?

Nilsen: First off, they are not "art films" by and large. They are very low-budget commercial films and plot-wise, they are very similar to their mainstream B-movie counterparts. The interest and value of these films comes from the fact that they are made for black audiences. While the humor is typically quite broad, it's instantly more sophisticated because it need not be slanted to fit a white audience's preconceptions. It can be very "inside" subversive humor.

Slackery News Tidbits: July 21, 2014

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Here's the latest Austin film news (and a very funny video at the end, so keep reading).

  • Filmmaker Magazine has released its 2014 edition of "25 new Faces of Independent Film." The list includes Austin filmmaker Annie Silverstein, whose short Skunk won the Cannes Cinefondation award this year, and former Houstonite/filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe, whose documentary Evolution of a Criminal played SXSW and Dallas IFF.
  • The Central Texas-shot horror movie Found Footage 3D wrapped shooting recently, and Austin Chronicle contributor Richard Whittaker wrote about his visit to the indie film's set. This will be the feature-film debut for writer/director Steven DeGennaro. Producers include Kim Henkel, who wrote The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and film critic/former Austinite Scott Weinberg.
  • Austin comedy Love & Air Sex (formerly The Bounceback) is trying something different to boost online sales. If you go to BitTorrent, you can download -- no, not the whole film illegally, but a legally downloadable bundle that includes a 10-minute clip as well as photos, music and the movie's Kickstarter thank-you video. The idea is that this will then entice you into buying Love & Air Sex from the film's website (not for free, but pretty darn cheaply). (via filmmaker Bryan Poyser)
  • I could not possibly capture all the Boyhood reviews, articles and interviews over the past week (go read Don's review, though), but here's one important piece of news: Filmmaker Richard Linklater announced that Criterion will release the movie on Blu-ray/DVD with extras potentially including interviews taken over the 12-year production.

Movies This Week: July 18-24, 2014

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Boyhood 

Over the next week, your only real duty as a film lover is to see Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Yes, it's almost three hours long. Yes, the reviews are mindblowingly great. Yes, it's the real deal. I attended last weekend's Austin Film Society Q&A screening with Linklater, Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in attendance and I'm definitely ready to see it again. It's that good. 

Speaking of special screenings, AFS is bringing the SXSW hit Road To Austin (Mike's review) to the Marchesa tonight. The documentary examines how Austin became the "Live Music Capital Of The World" and features live performance footage from Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Joe Ely and over 40 other artists. If that sounds up your alley, so will the Sunday afternoon screening of Tommy Hancock: West Texas Muse. Following the leader of West Texas's premiere western swing band, the film features many Texas musicians including Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Lloyd Maines. Hancock lives in Austin and will be on hand for a Q&A. Thursday night's Essential Cinema brings us Ingmar Bergman's 1973 masterpiece Scenes From A Marriage. This screening will be the 169-minute theatrical version, although if you go and really enjoy it, you should track down the 295-minute television miniseries version as originally aired in Sweden. 

Alamo Drafthouse Ritz has a lot of great music programming on tap again as part of this month's "The Alamo Goes To '11" feature. A new digital restoration of Stop Making Sense plays twice Saturday, with Wattstax in the mix on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and a sneak preview of the new Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days On Earth. That is sold out at the Ritz on Sunday, but also plays at the Village and Slaughter Lane locations that afternoon, and tickets are still left at the Ritz for Music Monday. A 35mm print of John Woo's extraordinarily violent Hard Boiled screens at the Ritz on Sunday night for Tough Guy Cinema and The Complete David Lynch series enters its fourth week with a handful of Blue Velvet screenings in 35mm. 

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