Mike Saulters's blog

SXSW Review: Road to Austin

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Road to AustinAustin is called the "Live Music Capital of the World," and a very large influence on it was singer/songwriter Stephen Bruton. In 2007, only a week after completing his treatment for throat cancer and in his final appearance on stage, Bruton led his band through a four-hour, 38-song "Road to Austin" performance in front of 20,000 fans. Director Gary Fortin covers the concert and history of the Austin music scene from 1835 to today in Road to Austin, which premiered at SXSW 2014.

Beginning with Kris Kristofferson and John Paul DeJoria relating their experiences, Fortin weaves photos and film footage from the earliest days of Austin into a vivid tapestry. Artists recount tales of legendary venues, some now gone, including Threadgill's, Antone's, the Armadillo World Headquarters, Broken Spoke, Continental Club and Saxon Pub.

Road to Austin explores how the city became, like a microcosm of the United States, a musical melting pot where country, blues, Latino and psychedelic influences combined and grew, creating a unique scene and a strong community.

The interviews and history serve as an introduction to footage from the concert itself, where Bruton takes the stage with his band and a host of 60 star performers. The festival cut of the film includes eight songs emceed by Turk Pipkin. Blues, country, even an operatic performance by Cara Johnston are represented, but the peak of the concert has to be Malford Milligan's performance. When Milligan sings Bruton's "Bigger Wheel," you can't help jumping and dancing along. The energy is infectious and powerful.

The full concert includes artists Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Joe Ely, Eric Johnson, David Grissom, Bob Schneider, Carolyn Wonderland, Raul Salinas, Bobby Whitlock & CoCo Carmel, Lisa Hayes, Joel Guzman & Sarah Fox, Ian Mclagan, James Hand, Ruthie Foster, and the Tosca String Quartet.

Review: Divergent

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DivergentIn a dystopian future ruled by an authoritarian government, a young female protagonist with special skills must make personal sacrifices and overcome incredible odds in order to protect her family. That may sound like a plot synopsis for The Hunger Games, but it is equally applicable to this week's release from director Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist). Based on the young adult novel by Veronica Roth, the movie Divergent was scripted by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones).

Set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, the society of Divergent is organized into five factions who each perform their own important functions, such as labor, government and military, based on personality type. On the eve of adulthood, teens are given an aptitude test to help them determine which faction will be the best fit for them, and they must then choose their permanent assignment.

Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) stars as Beatrice "Tris" Prior, who learns when she takes her test that she is a rare Divergent, someone who is equally suited to more than one faction, with the gift of creative thought -- and therefore a threat to the established regime. Forced to hide this knowledge as exposure would mean certain death, Tris must choose her faction and do her best to avoid making waves, a task that appears impossible when technology is in use that can display one's very thoughts on screen.

Tris receives help from Four (Theo James), assigned to train new members of the faction. Kate Winslet stars as Jeanine Matthews, the mysterious and dangerous figure who more than anything wants to see Divergents captured and killed.

Even with the formulaic setup I found myself somewhat caught up in the story, which consists largely of Tris's struggles to complete training for her chosen faction, Dauntless, the fearless military protectors of the city. These sequences take the audience on a tour of striking visuals through the ruins of Chicago, including training grounds in an abandoned amusement park, a great wall and fence hundreds of feet high that surround the city (though we never see the reason for the fence), and into the stone quarry where the Dauntless make their home.

Texas at SXSW 2014: Alan Tudyk, 'Premature'

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Alan Tudyk - Premature

I interviewed a trio of native-Texas actors at SXSW for the comedy Premature, which premiered at the fest (my review). Alan Tudyk was born in El Paso and grew up in Plano. The veteran of Juilliard has a hefty list of credits in both television and film including roles in Serenity, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Suburgatory, Arrested Development, Firefly, Dollhouse and V as well as voice performances in the animated films Ice Age (and its sequels), Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen. Due to time constraints, Laurie Coker of True View Reviews and I interviewed Tudyk together.

True View Reviews: First time at SXSW?

Alan Tudyk: No, I've been here before. I worked in the music festival a few years ago. I have a good friend who lives in town. I used to come to Austin all the time. I used to spend every New Years here. This is where you could find me on New Year's, hanging out, watching music. Not so much these days. My girlfriend had a film here one year.

Slackerwood: Everybody wants to know know if there will be another Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.

Tudyk: There was almost one, but I think it's currently dead. Unfortunately. You know, it could be alive -- hell, what do I know? But it came close and then something happened with the producer-y guys, I don't know what it was, and then director Eli Craig got an offer to do some really big badass movie. [Co-star] Tyler Labine and I really want to do one, and he's starting to make movies now. He's producing movies, and he wants to do a movie with the two of us. We would love to do one.

Texas at SXSW 2014: Carlson Young, 'Premature'

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Carlson YoungI interviewed a trio of Texans at SXSW for the comedy Premature, which premiered at the fest (my review). One was Carlson Young, who's a native of Fort Worth. Her first role was on the Austin-shot TV series As the Bell Rings, and her career has included among others, roles in Heroes, Pretty Little Liars, True Blood, The League and Key and Peele.

[Note: Due to technical issues, we were not able to see Premature before interviews.]

Slackerwood: Why don't you tell me a little about your part in the film?

Carlson Young: Initially reading the script, I thought I could do something really different with the character, like I feel like she could come off as the stereotypical popular chick, you know? But I saw her as a lot more than that because I think she's the kind of girl who's like "I'm a badass" to be honest, and sees something she wants and she takes it. It's not about being popular or having friends, she's just a go-getter, literally. I really wanted to bring that driven, female-empowerment deal to the character.

Is that why you use the word "slutes" instead of "sluts"?

Young: Slutes, I love slutes. How did you know that?

It's in the press kit.

Young: OK, yeah then I'm a slute. She's a total slute.

How did you come up with that name?

Young: I got it from a friend of mine. She went to school in New Orleans at Tulane. She and her girlfriends had this crazy lingo. They had a different word for everything, and they were some of my best friends. I totally adopted the word from them, and I think it's pretty applicable to this situation.

Texas at SXSW 2014: John Karna, 'Premature'

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John KarnaAt SXSW this year, I was able to interview three native-Texas actors from the movie Premature, which premiered at the fest (my review). Let's start with Houston native John Karna, who also starred in the 2012 Slamdance audience-award-winning comedy Bindlestiffs (Jette's Dallas IFF review).

Slackerwood: So this is your first big picture?

John Karna: This is, yeah. This is my first paid movie gig, which is awesome they trusted me to do it.

So Bindlestiffs was unpaid?

Karna: Unpaid, it was a passion project with my friends. We just decided when I was in high school, my friends and I -- Andrew Edison who directed and Luke Loftin who wrote it -- we decided to do this improv movie just for fun. And we finished it and submitted it, and it got into Slamdance and won the audience award and Kevin Smith was a huge fan of it, and that was pretty badass.

Did it get distribution?

Karna: You know, it's on Netflix, I think? [It is.] And it's on iTunes, which is pretty hilarious, because we were just a bunch of kids fucking around with a camera. It was a great time, and that kind of made me realize I'd love to do film. I was still going to college. I was studying musical theater, and I love singing and all that, but going to festivals... These people are so excited. I've never seen people more passionate about movies, and it makes you so excited about film and cinema. I love it.

You're from Texas?

Karna: Yeah, I am from Houston, Texas.

SXSW 2014: Mondo Gallery Ansin/Tong Show

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The Wizard of Oz 

A mere week after their tremendously successful Disney-themed gallery show, the folks at Mondo reset the gallery for a second SXSW exhibit -- this time, featuring works from two of their most popular artists, Martin Ansin and Kevin Tong. As usual, people were lined up around the block waiting their chance to purchase these beautiful limited-edition art prints.

SXSW Review: Born to Fly

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Born to FlyIf you have not heard of Streb Extreme Action Company and have not heard the name Elizabeth Streb, you'll wonder why after seeing the documentary Born to Fly by director Catherine Gund, which made its world premiere at SXSW 2014.

Streb was the recipient of the 1997 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award and is a member of the NYC Mayor's Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission. In 1985, she founded a unique dance company performing her own very physical style of choreography called Pop Action. Testing the limits of human motion, Streb dancers forcefully slam into walls, dive and crash into the padded floor, and dodge flying steel girders or launch themselves high into the air, taking flight as they play with industrial-looking sets populated with heavy machinery.

Not much of Streb's personal life is explored in Born to Fly, but that may likely be because her life is so interwound with her work. Streb has lived most of her life in the same space in which she works. Gund reviews Streb's career with a focus on recent achievements. Her piece "Little Ease," now performed by dancer Jackie Carlson, bridges the span between the years when Streb performed herself and her current work choreographing for the company. 

There is an element of danger in all Streb's performances, which as she states "do not try to hide the existence of gravity." The dancers are heavier and more solid than the traditional image, able to absorb the extreme stresses placed on their bodies by repeated heavy impacts.

At 62, however, Streb herself performed in her exhibition for the London Olympics titled "One Extraordinary Day," which included dancers bungee jumping from the Millenium Bridge, high-wire performances on the spokes of the London Eye, and an abseil down the side of City Hall.

Born to Fly does more than document Streb's work and life. The film elicits excitement about her work. It is at once exhilerating and transcendent. It will leave you wanting to see more, and indeed you can. The home of Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM) provides videos and information on live rehearsals and performances.

SXSW 2014: 'Wilderness of James' and 'Other Months'

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The Wilderness of JamesTired of the downtown scene after a weekend of expensive parking, crowds, and shuttle buses, I spent a day at the Alamo Drafthouse Village SXSatellite location. The satellite theaters have been a godsend for their convenience as well as the larger number of films the SXSW programmers can select because of them.

We at Slackerwood only wish the Village and Slaughter satellite locations screened films for the entire festival, instead of just through Thursday. (The Marchesa screened through Saturday, thankfully.)

The Wilderness of James

My first selection was a beautiful exploration of the teen psyche by first-time director Michael Johnson. The Wilderness of James stars Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) as James Charm, a young man obsessed with death. Living alone with his mother (Virginia Madsen) and bullied by the neighbor kids, he spends his time sketching dead animals and visiting his therapist (Danny DeVito, in one of the warmest roles he's ever taken). When he encounters and befriends Harmon (Evan Ross) on a late-night train ride, he is introduced to a new social world and begins to come out of his shell and conquer his emotional demons as he falls in love with Val (Isabelle Fuhrman).

Johnson's script is meditative, populated with likable and interesting characters, and intelligently written. His film is beautiful, and he treats his characters respectfully, writing believable dialogue in a story with a somewhat timeless quality. From the audience I felt a connection with the James character as the film brought back memories of adolescent fears and longings. As a thoughtful character study, The Wilderness of James is a pleasant experience.

SXSW Review: Premature

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Premature

Ferris Bueller meets Groundhog Day in the raunchy teen comedy Premature, from first-time writer/director Dan Beers. Rated R for language and sexual themes, Premature is unafraid to push the boundaries of good taste in the pursuit of laughter.

Beers has assembled a dynamic and talented cast including native Texans John Karna, Alan Tudyk and Carlson Young (look for interviews with these three next week). Karna stars as Rob Crabbe, an average teenager who wakes up on the most important day of his senior year lying in a wet spot on his bed. The events of the day, including his Georgetown college interview with Jack Roth (Tudyk) and tutoring session with sexy vixen Angela (Young), play out until he finds himself in bed with Angela, prematurely climaxes and immediately finds himself again in his bed at home, starting the day over.

Cursed to continue repeating the events of the day, Rob tries to work out a solution with the help of his best friends Stanley (Craig Roberts) and Gabrielle (Katie Findlay). Karna's charisma and naturally keen comic timing help to overlook weaker moments of dialogue where the teens sometimes don't feel like authentic teens as much as people delivering adult lines. Some lines are followed with a touch too much dead silence, as if edited to allow for insertion of a laugh track, but after such stumbles the pace always picks back up and delivers genuine laughs.

SXSW Review: The Infinite Man

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The Infinite ManTime-travel movies can be so difficult to execute that few filmmakers attempt them. Fewer still can claim success. Of those, I've reserved the highest praise, citing as the only time-travel movie that "gets it right" by being internally self-consistent, playing by its own rules while still being entertaining and managing to surprise the audience, for Nacho Vigolondo's Time Crimes. Until now. Many might ask about Rian Johnson's hit Looper, which is a good film, I agree, but which in the end breaks the rules.

Like Time Crimes, The Infinite Man is a micro-budget sci-fi story with a cast of only three characters. They are Dean (Josh McConville), his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall), and her ex Terry (Alex Dimitriades), who is obsessed with Lana and wants her back.

In addition to being a brilliant crackerjack scientist, Dean is a control freak who can't be satisfied with anything less than perfection. On the anniversary of their first, perfect date, Dean and Lana return to the same location as he attempts to recreate it in every detail. Unfortunately, there are too many variables out of his control, including the sudden appearance of Terry, intent on regaining the love of Lana. After the date falls apart, Dean spends a year creating a time machine and thus begins a loop returning to the fateful weekend as he seeks to put things right.

The ensuing encounters with himself, with Lana, and with Terry, shot from different locations and angles, play out hilariously as the truth of the story is slowly revealed not just to the audience, but to Dean himself. Writer/director Hugh Sullivan's clever script explores the unhealthier aspects of relationships such as self-doubt, co-dependence, obsessiveness, and controlling behaviors metaphorically through the actions of his characters.

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