Once in awhile, you look at an Austin Film Festival panel listing and your heart just goes pitter-pat. Or thumpity-thump. Or whatever noise it is when you are especially excited about a panelist. I may be old and jaded but still susceptible. When I saw Elaine May would be in Austin for the fest, I decided I would go hear her speak no matter what time of day it was and what else I was supposed to be doing.
But last week was a little crazy for me, and I am never very organized with my fest scheduling, so it's not really surprising I got the date of Elaine May's panel wrong and missed it. (Dale Roe has a great write-up.) However, I did make it to Rollins on Friday to see A New Leaf for the first time and enjoy a Q&A from star/writer/director May.
This 1971 film is May's directorial debut -- she also co-stars in it with Walter Matthau. He's brilliant, she's brilliant, it's terribly funny, and I just found out it's on Amazon Prime streaming so I can watch it again soon. Preferably with my husband, who might find some sympathy with a character who's involved with someone terribly flaky who can't put her clothes on properly and has crumbs all over her front after eating and falls down and spills things a lot.
Here's the latest Austin film news.
- Austin Film Festival announced this year's film awards, which included the inaugural Dark Matters Jury Award, won by writer-director Darren Paul Fisher for OXV: The Manual. First time writer/director Chris Lowell took home the Narrative Feature Jury Award for his movie Beside Still Waters, and director Christopher Englese won the documentary feature jury prize for Political Bodies.
- AFF also announced its shorts jury awards. The AFF Young Filmmakers Program Grand Prize was awarded to Imogen Pohl, director of HB; writer/director Avram Dodson won the Narrative Student Short Jury Prize for Pistachio Milk; the Documentary Shorts Jury Award went to director Jenny van den Broeke for Blinde Liefde; Erica Harrison's A Cautionary Tale took the Animated Shorts award, and Fool's Day, from Cody Blue Snider (Dee Snider's son, interestingly) won the Narrative Shorts award.
- Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater discusses Before Midnight (out on Blu-ray and DVD), a possible Dazed and Confused "spiritual sequel" and TV series, as well as his long-awaited film Boyhood with Parade. The film, which Linklater's been working on since 2002, chronicles the life of a child from age six to 18 and stars native Texan Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the boy's fictional parents.
Gardner (Joseph Mazzello, Jurassic Park) is a socially awkward, 25-year-old mail carrier in the indie romantic comedy Dear Sidewalk. He keeps to a usual routine which includes a postal route walking through Austin neighborhoods, a daily chat with sarcastic retiree Trudy (Lana Dieterich) and weekly meetings with his small philatelic club. This stamp-collecting group is made up of his postal service co-workers (Davi Jay, Hugo Perez and C. K. McFarland) who encourage him to get out more. Meanwhile, he sleeps in a boat in front of his best pal Calvin's (Josh Fadem, 30 Rock) house.
Then fortysomething divorcee Paige (Michelle Forbes, True Blood) moves into a house on his route and disrupts his daily pattern. She flirts with him and takes him to the Cathedral of Junk. She throws his watch in Town Lake (or Lady Bird Lake, if you prefer). What does this mean for Gardner?
Mazzello at first appears uncertain of how he wants to portray Gardner, but grows into the role as Dear Sidewalk progresses (or maybe it just bothered me less as the film went on). The relationship between Gardner and brother-from-another-mother Calvin is sweet -- they are both odd birds -- and fits with the goofy vibe of the film. Indeed, their friendship seemed more believable than the idea of Paige and Gardner getting together.
The character of Paige comes off as incomplete. We're given some facts about her (she's recently divorced, used to be an artist and hates the blind dates her brother keeps setting her up on), but there is much left unknown about her and not as much depth to the role as I would like.
Sure, the plot is a smidge disjointed, but the writing made me laugh out loud more than once. The supporting characters (diverse in age and ethnicity, yay) were standouts of the movie. Trudy is fearless and flirty. Gardner's co-workers are quirky and full of advice for him. I can't neglect to mention Ashley Spillers, who injects some verve into Dear Sidewalk as a love interest for Calvin [see our interview with Ashley].
Dear Sidewalk is director Jake Oelman's first feature film, and shows Austin as a walkable city: Gardner doesn't own a car, and seems to take the path near Auditorium Shores daily. As the mail carrier traverses streets dense with trees, the film also features some colorful houses in town. The Austin in this movie has the feeling of a smaller suburban town -- with a great view of downtown easily available.
I started off my Saturday at the festival by sitting in on the "Veronica Mars: From Small Screen To Silver Screen" panel at the Driskill Hotel Ballroom. Ben Blacker (from the Nerdist Writers Panel) moderated this excellent conversation with Veronica Mars creator and Austin resident Rob Thomas and actor Chris Lowell ("Piz"). Over the course of 75+ minutes, Thomas spoke about the benefits and difficulties of crowdfunding the upcoming Veronica Mars feature film through Kickstarter, developing the screenplay, shooting the film itself and his post-production process (which has been going on for the past 11 weeks).
Over 90,000 people contributed to the Kickstarter campaign, which is the third highest-funded project in the site's history. While $5.7 million can create a decent indie film, this is a franchise that is controlled by Warner Bros., which means that the resources to make a full-length movie were still somewhat limited. In the end, Thomas calls it a "sprawling" movie with 60 speaking roles and lots of extras. They shot 115 script pages in just 23 days and were unable to shoot a lot of takes before moving on.
The final film is still being tweaked, but underwent a successful test screening this week. Thomas wrote the movie for the hardcore fans, but now is balancing the target audience with the awareness that there needs to be some "spoon-feeding" in the editing process to help the newbies catch up to the stories of characters established over three television seasons. When asked if a sequel could also be crowdsourced, Thomas didn't rule it out, mainly because of how rabid and excited the fanbase is to see this project come back to life: "If it's successful, maybe we can be the low-budget James Bond."
The Counselor is dirty, very very dirty, sexy-dirty. Beginning with Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz in bed, to Cameron Diaz being as carnally, carnivorously slutty as you've never seen her before to Javier Bardem's jaw-dropping monologue describing a night with her, this is a pressure cooker of a film, exploding with steam.
It's also a bemusing piece that challenges actors to play a little outside their established roles. Brad Pitt is not the hero but a little bit of a coward, Fassbender's character is directionless, entirely at a loss for what he should do ... and how often is Javier Bardem a sympathetic good guy?
Writer Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) is at home in west Texas, but director Ridley Scott makes El Paso look a little more glamorous and busy than it really is. (Only pick-up footage was actually shot there, though.)
The story involves Fassbender, credited only as "Counselor" and never called by name, an attorney who has gotten into debt to a criminal element and goes into business with Reiner (Bardem) and Westray (Pitt) in the hopes of making millions selling drugs through a club he and Reiner plan to open. In a murky plot that becomes only slightly more clear by the end, a third party arranges to kill a key player and steal the drug shipment, leaving Counselor holding the bag.
It is clear that, like the actors, McCarthy was trying to stretch himself and achieve something great with The Counselor. He succeeded, at least, in creating something remarkably unique. Rambling philosophical diatribes from supporting actors create a thoughtful mood but don't ultimately have a clear meaning, their delivery at times reminiscent of David Carradine's lines in Kill Bill.
In spite of the death of his brother and producing partner Tony mid-shoot, Ridley Scott has done a great job assembling a phenomenal cast and directing a noteworthy film that will be worth revisiting and may perhaps gain some cult status.
After voting early on Thursday, I went to the Alamo Drafthouse Village for the first night of the Austin Film Festival. Arriving 40 minutes before the 7:30 screening, I was #50 in the badges line for the marquee screening of Philomena. Obviously, many Austinites thought the Village theatre would be a safe choice for Thursday night... but besides the badges, not many of the attendees with film passes got in. The room was packed.
This new Stephen Frears drama (with comedic elements) stars Judi Dench as an Irish woman yearning to know what happened to the son she birthed 50 years ago. He was born in her teenage years at a convent where she was forced to work as he was put up for adoption. Former political figure Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) decides to aid her in her search as he works on a human interest story about it.
Based on a true story, this heart-rending film had me tearing up minutes before Dench would make a comment that would crack me up. Philomena has a refreshing message of mercy, along with a clever script that makes much of the class differences between Martin and Philomena.
I realized as I raced to my car and hurriedly drove to the Texas Spirit Theatre that Philomena and the next film on my schedule, Political Bodies, share a commonality: Both films have to do with reproductive decisions. A teen in mid-20th century Ireland, knowing nothing of birth control, Philomena's choices during her pregnancy were very limited. And if conservative Republicans have their way in Virginia, options for the women of that state will be similarly limited... in 2013.
Political Bodies follows the players in the 2012 battle for reproductive rights in Virginia, from GOP lawmakers to women who run the clinics affected by legislation. Abortion provider Shelley Abrams talks of attacks the clinics had to prepare for in the past and says that currently "the assault has come from our own government."
It's a relatively light week for new releases and specialty screenings across town, which is honestly a big relief. If you're like the majority of the Slackerwood gang, you'll be exploring the films and panels of Austin Film Festival until next Thursday. Or perhaps you'll dive into the inaugural Housecore Horror Film Festival, covering both film and music. That doesn't leave a lot of room for squeezing in outside screenings, but this update should help you prioritize your moviegoing calendar if you do.
Tonight, the Austin Film Society is hosting an event called "Chester Turner Overdrive" at the Marchesa. Just in time for Halloween, you can enjoy Black Devil Doll From Hell and Tales From The Quadead Zone along with director Chester Turner and actress Shirley L. Jones in attendance. Halloween night (next Thursday) will also allow you to get creeped out by the legendary David Cronenberg on the big screen with a rare 35mm presentation of Videodrome. If your tastes run more towards world cinema than horror, earlier in the evening on the 31st you can enjoy the Essential Cinema selection of Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life Of Oharu, also at the Marchesa.
Notable bookings at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz this week include Ridley Scott's Alien (with new exclusive Mondo posters available) on Saturday and Sunday, a 35mm screening of Predator on Sunday, Alan Arkin's 1971 dark comedy Little Murders on Monday and Homo Arigato! will also host a rare Beta presentation of Thundercrack! Meanwhile, the Alamo Lakeline and Slaughter Lane will both serve up The Wolf Man for a classic horror treat this Saturday and Sunday.
Many Austin Film Festival-goers kicked off their week by attending one of the first panels on the schedule -- "A Conversation with Jeff Nichols." In a Q&A session that lasted a little over an hour on Thursday afternoon (it was moderated by Christopher Boone), the Austin-based director discussed the three films he has completed so far (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud) as well as his upcoming release, Midnight Special. As a writer and director who has achieved critical success while working with both small and big budgets, Nichols had plenty of advice and entertaining tidbits to share with the audience.
Nichols, who comes off as both boyish and wise, eschews traditional film-school techniques (such as following a strict screenplay formula) but stresses the importance of adhering to certain personal storytelling rules. He described his process as beginning with various large ideas (masculinity, first love, financial anxiety, etc.) and then filtering them through a story that is ultimately about the characters he has created. Nichols' actual writing process involves arranging notecards filled with scenes and plot points and holding tightly to the idea of point of view.
Humble about his creative accomplishments and clearly knowledgeable about the business of making movies, Nichols made for a practically ideal AFF guest. The audience remained rapt and appreciative throughout, and this panel was an excellent reminder that AFF is all about dissecting the filmmaking process and appreciating good work. Here are a few highlights from the session:
- Much to Nichols' disappointment, Shotgun Stories was rejected by both Sundance Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival. However, it was embraced at the Berlin International Film Festival and also screened here at AFF, where it received the Feature Film Award in 2007.
- Nichols often writes about white men (because he is one), but expressed the desire to include strong and realistic female characters in his work. That Jessica Chastain's character was domestically-oriented in Take Shelter was a reflection of his mother, who Nichols considers one of the strongest women he has known.
The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities (CTD) hosts its tenth annual Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival and Short Film Competition this November 1 and 2 at the Alamo Drafthouse Village.
The Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival was founded in 2004 by CTD staffer William Greer, with the goal to counter negative stereotypes about people with disabilities and to celebrate positive portrayals of disability culture. Since its inception, the festival has twice been awarded the Barbara Jordan Media Award for Special Contribution by an Organization.
Events from previous years have included a 2005 screening of What's Eating Gilbert Grape preceded by an interview with star Darlene Cates, an exclusive interview with Dr. Temple Grandin screened in conjunction with the 2009 feature Temple Grandin, and numerous other special guests.
You can buy tickets now for Friday, November 1 featuring the documentary Getting Up: The TEMPT ONE Story -- about graffiti artist Tempt One -- and for Saturday, November 2 featuring The Crash Reel -- a documentary about professional snowboarders. In addition to entry, the $10 tickets are vouchers you can redeem for $10 of food and drink from the Drafthouse menu. Both evening events also include short films from the competition and Q&As.
As much as I'd admired Sam Shepard as an actor for decades, I was not familiar with his writing until I read a collection of his short stories, Cruising Paradise. This anthology of 40 short tales written between 1989 and 1995, set mostly in remote reaches of the U.S. and Mexico, depicts the loneliness of a man who grew up in with familial discord brought on by alcoholism. Some of the stories are fictional, but several come straight from Shepard's personal diary.
The poignant documentary Shepard & Dark by filmmaker and part-time Austinite Treva Wurmfeld reveals even more of the life and loves of Shepard, told through both personal interviews and archival footage and letters exchanged between himself and Johnny Dark. The pair met in the Sixties during an off-off Broadway play in Greenwich Village that Shepard had written. One playwright from California, the other an odd-jobber from Jersey City, talked about their childhood of airplanes and dogs and found a connection when they shared stories of their fathers.