Jette Kernion's blog

Review: Tomorrowland

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Tomorrowland posterThe last 10 minutes of a movie are often what shapes our opinion most -- a strong ending can soften our feelings about a bad movie, and a weak, tone-deaf ending can spoil a filmgoing experience far more thoroughly than any overly revealing trailer or review. Tomorrowland is often a breathtakingly gorgeous movie with charming performances, but the ending is so unabashedly lesson-driven and heavy-handed that it's difficult to remember anything but its flaws and missteps.

The movie's opening and closing scenes are meant as bookends, but these are bookends created by your clumsy kid brother in shop class on the day the nails ran short. The first scenes in particular feel like a hurried reshoot/restructure to get George Clooney onscreen earlier. Frank (Clooney) and Casey (Britt Robertson) are speaking directly into the camera, making a video for an unknown audience. With interruptions from Casey, Frank begins setting up the story through flashbacks to his childhood.

Young Frank (Thomas Robinson) visits the 1964 World's Fair -- which includes the Disney "It's a Small World" exhibit, natch -- to win an inventors' contest with his jet pack that doesn't ... quite ... work. He fails to impress the judge (Hugh Laurie) but young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) manages to sneak him access to a hidden, magical land, aka Tomorrowland (based on the Disney theme park).

The movie then abruptly shifts gears to Casey's story, which seems to be set in the near future -- her father is a NASA engineer, and she keeps trying to sabotage attempts to close Cape Canaveral down. Her unbounded optimism, interest in science and desire to fix everything catches Athena's attention, and she decides to introduce Casey to Tomorrowland too ... in the hopes that she can convince Frank, who's become even more you-kids-get-off-my-lawn than Clint Eastwood, to help them solve drastic problems affecting Tomorrrowland and the contemporary world.

Unfortunately, the entire concept of the Tomorrowland world feels weirdly Ayn Rand-ian and the movie feels at times like a pro-STEM propaganda piece aimed at kids. Filmmaker Brad Bird has never been subtle about messaging in family films such as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but stellar storytelling with compelling characters took front and center. In addition, Tomorrowland is hampered by obvious Disney brand marketing, as off-putting as it was in Saving Mr. Banks.

HCFF Review: Mount Lawrence

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Mount Lawrence posterImagine cycling more than 6,000 miles cross-country, mending dozens of popped tires, camping out in thunderstorms, coping with unexpected injuries ... and documenting it with video cameras. Filmmaker Chandler Wild takes on the challenge in the documentary Mount Lawrence, and includes the audience in his experience in an engaging, almost intimate way. The film recently won the Best Documentary award at the Hill Country Film Festival.

Wild, a former Texan living in Brooklyn, decides to embark on this adventure to honor the memory of his dad, who loved taking his family on adventurous camping and other outdoor trips ... and eventually committed suicide. He plans to cycle from New York City through California and up to Alaska, and he has to do it within a fairly limited timeframe so the weather will be okay for travelling by the time he gets to Canada. His goal is to reach Homer, Alaska and climb an as-yet-unnamed mountain that he'll hopefully be able to officially name after his father (thus the title).

From Brooklyn, Wild starts the bicycle trek with his friend Connor Lynch, who has never tried cycling of any real distance, or outdoor living, or any of this kind of thing. While it's a rough start for Lynch, having him accompany Wild is a great entryway for the audience to empathize with the situation. Eventually they hit a rhythm as they travel west and deal with all kinds of unpredictable difficulties, as well as some truly lovely moments on the road and in places like Detroit and Yellowstone Park.

Mount Lawrence follows the obvious structure of the lengthy road trip, but Wild adds more of a personal note by framing his voiceover narration as a letter to his dad. It sounds a little stiff and forced at first, but as the documentary really gets rolling and we get to know him better, his inflections sound more natural. Music from The Bones of J.R. Bones complements the odyssey very well.

For a movie shot with GoPro cameras mounted crazily on bikes and other rough-on-the-road shooting, Mount Lawrence looks especially good on a big screen, but will carry over well to home video. The opening credits sequence, designed to look like a family vacation slideshow, is a real visual highlight. At this time, the film is touring the film-fest circuit and no distribution deals or plans have been announced ... but it's hard to imagine a documentary about an adventure of such magnitude won't make it at least to online streaming outlets soon.

Texas connections: Filmmaker Chandler Wild grew up in the Houston, Texas area.

Review: I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

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I Am Big Bird posterThe documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is exactly what you'd expect it to be, if you're a Muppet fan ... and also exactly what you'd hope it would be. Tonight's Violet Crown screening is sold out, but you can watch the film via online streaming outlets such as Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.

The film is a pleasant and sometimes touching profile of Caroll Spinney, who has spent decades portraying both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street and elsewhere. It's traditionally structured, primarily by time sequence -- beginning with his childhood and early puppet and acting gigs, and heading for the present. Interviews with Spinney help form the backbone of the film -- he tells us his own history, supported by other interview from his family to Sesame Street colleagues such as Frank Oz, Joan Ganz Cooney and Norman Stiles.

Naturally I Am Big Bird includes a great deal of vintage Sesame Street and Muppet footage, starting from the days when Oscar was orange and Big Bird didn't have quite so much plumage. The footage is delightful but also occasionally poignant -- it's impossible to talk about Big Bird without mentioning the episode about Mr. Hooper's death, and it's impossible to talk about Muppet history without mentioning Jim Henson's death.

Although the structure is fairly traditional, filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker manage some excellent segues that cover a lot of ground. For example, after showing scenes from Jim Henson's memorial, Spinney and Oz discuss Steve Whitmire taking over Kermit's character, which naturally leads to addressing what will happen when Spinney retires, and introduces his Big Bird apprentice, Matt Vogel. An early sequence about the filming of Big Bird in China pays off later in the film in a way that may be predictable but is no less affecting.

HCFF Review: The Origins of Wit and Humor

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The Origins of Wit and Humor posterCharming indie film The Origins of Wit and Humor, which screened earlier this month at the Hill Country Film Festival, appears at first to be a romantic comedy, but ultimately leans heavily on the comedy, as hinted in the title. In fact, you could argue that this movie is a romantic comedy in which humor portrays the femme fatale the protagonist pursues -- the storyline chronicles the repercussions of his entanglements with this demanding love interest.

Les (Joe Hursley) is a comedy writer who's completely devastated when seemingly out of nowhere, his longtime girlfriend moves out. He can't write, he can't function, he has no idea how to approach women, despite encouragement from his best friend Pops (Steve Lemme). On a whim, Les sends off a mail-order form from the back of an old book (with the same title as the film) and receives a "potion" that will allegedly make him irresistably funny to all women. And the big problem is that unlike "X-ray specs" and the Charles Atlas program, the potion turns out to work.

The Origins of Wit and Humor has a tendency to favor broad comedy over character and plot consistency, when given the choice, with occasional misfires. For example, the scene where Les seeks out the source of the potion he has taken is just silly and feels forced. On the other hand, a sequence that pays tribute to silent movies didn't have much tie-in to the plot but it's so funny, it hardly matters.

Hursley has a talent for hilariously appropriate facial expressions that don't cross over into shameless mugging -- he reminded me a little of Hugh Laurie back in the Bernie Wooster years. He and Lemme together make just about any situation more humorous. The female characters don't get much to do in the movie apart from Grace McPhillips as Pops' wife, who is immune to Les's charms and also pretty amusing with her own reaction shots. She also gets a nice moment in a diner with Les -- she's probably the smartest character in the film.

HCFF Review: Night Owls

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Night Owls

An ambitious young man finds himself tending to his boss's girlfriend -- his married boss's secret girlfriend -- who's in despair. It sounds like the middle of The Apartment, but it's actually the focus of Night Owls, a feature that premiered at SXSW and just screened at the Hill Country Film Festival, where it won the Cinema Dulce Best of Fest award. The indie owes a large debt to the 1960 Billy Wilder film without feeling like a remake or tribute.

The movie opens with Madeline (Rosa Salazar) taking Kevin (Adam Pally) home for a boozy one-night stand ... or so Kevin thinks. It's only after their brief liaison that Kevin, about to slip out of the house, realizes in stages that a) it's not her house, it belongs to his boss; b) Madeline's been involved with his boss in some way; and c) she's out cold in the bathroom after overdosing on something unknown.

Site News: Slackerwood Prepares to Wrap Up

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Pennybacker Bridge

I've been writing for and editing Slackerwood now for about nine years -- a long time, especially on the internet. And while it's been a wonderful experience, I feel like it's time for me to move on.

May 27, 2015 will be the last day we'll publish content to Slackerwood. The site will still remain online and searchable but it'll be an archive, essentially. Over the next month, we'll be winding down with a few final editions of regular columns and other coverage.

Why close the site? Because Slackerwood doesn't deserve an even slightly restless editor, to paraphrase Jon Stewart. Editing and publishing Slackerwood, while often delightful and rewarding, is a time-consuming job. After nine years, I'd like to spend that time doing other things, like more writing.

Review: Adult Beginners

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Adult Beginners posterHave you seen the indie film about the young ambitious-but-party-loving professional who has to move in with relatives after a heartbreaking business failure? Or how about the one where the estranged siblings are thrown back together and try to rebuild a strong relationship, in spite of their parents? Or maybe the movie where the single person or childless couple learn how much they've missed by not having children in their lives.

Adult Beginners retreads these all-too-familiar paths, but in such a pleasant way -- and with such an amusing cast -- that it's rarely tiresome. 

Jake (Nick Kroll) is one of those entrepreneurial types so familiar here in Austin (although he's wheeling and dealing in NYC) ready to launch The Next Big Thing. At the peak of his fabulous launch party, however, the venture collapses irretrievably, leaving him broke, unemployed and lacking any belief that he can do much of anything successfully. Jake moves in with his sister Justine (Rose Byrne) and her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale), out to their parents' old home in the suburbs, and he agrees to be their son Teddy's nanny in return for room and board.

At this point the movie shifts into predictable patterns: Jake learning how to care for a child, Jake dealing with nannies, Justine and Danny coping with having a self-centered man-child in their home, Jake and Justine rebuilding their relationship. I keep mixing up plot elements in my head with The Skeleton Twins (especially because of the pool element) and even In a World (unrelated: keep an ear out for Fred Malamed's voice in this movie too).

As with both those movies, the cast adds strength and interest to the more familiar aspects of the plot. Kroll and Byrne may not look much like siblings but they have the interaction down pat -- especially during/after Skype calls to their father and his wife. Byrne's character is probably the best-written of the bunch, with some lovely moments that push the role above the standard "exasperated but supportive wife and sister" cliche. I particularly liked a scene in a coffeehouse with a student she's mentoring. Cannavale's character is far more standard but he hits every note perfectly.

SXSW 2015: All Our Coverage

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Updated April 7, 2015.

Slackerwood was all over the SXSW Film Festival this year. Here's the list of all our guides, features, interviews, reviews and photos.

SXSW Review: Welcome to Leith

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Welcome to Leith

White supremacists move to a very small North Dakota town and start buying property, encouraging their friends to do the same so they can eventually "take over" the town. You can picture the resulting documentary -- the interviews with town members, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the tension about how this potentially explosive situation will end. But you might not predict that Welcome to Leith would skillfully show you that the situation is not as clear cut as it sounds, and show the poisonous side effects of not just hate, but fear.

The film opens with an ominous 911 call -- a woman in Leith believes herself to be in peril from men roaming the area with guns. But how did matters get to that point? Welcome to Leith backtracks to show us. It begins when Craig Cobb, whom the SPLC calls "one of the top ten white supremicists in America," buys property in the town of Leith -- three miles, 24 residents, one bar. Cobb is part of a group called the Creators and has a history of publishing personal identifiable information about people who cross him ("doxxing" before that was even a word).

After Cobb buys property in Leith -- at an unbelievably low cost -- he encourages other white supremacist group leaders to buy land there and join him, with a goal of taking over the town entirely. He donates a tract of land to Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance. You can guess what the neighbors think -- especially the town's lone African-American resident, whom Cobb approaches about selling land. Imagine how you'd feel to see a swastika painted on a sign on your neighbor's property. The town leaders decide to change water and sewer ordinances in a way that could possibly drive the unwanted new residents out of town again.

SXSW Review: The Overnight

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The Overnight

Here we have a pair of newcomers to Southern California, watching their little boy on the playground. Oh look, he's sharing his gummy worms with another boy. Oh look, here comes the boy's dad, fussing about the non-organic ingredients in the gummy worms. And just when you think this is going to turn into another Carnage, it turns out the dad is kidding, the atmosphere lightens, and everyone becomes friends ... for the moment.

After the above prologue, The Overnight sticks to its title, set primarily at a dinner party. And as the evening slowly unravels, the tension builds quite effectively and it's difficult to tell what this movie is and where it's going. It's funny, but is it ultimately a comedy? Will it be a dark comedy with a body count? Some kind of inversion on a home invasion film? Eventually you give up wondering and accept that you won't be able to relax until the movie ends.

Emily (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Adam Scott), eager to make friends in their new neighborhood, accept a dinner invitation from Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) after meeting on the aforementioned playground. The little boys are fast friends, but Emily and Alex are more hesitant about a couple that seems a little bit ... off. Kurt wants to show off Charlotte's acting talent by showing a video clip that only enhances the awkward feelings in the air. Kurt shows Alex his studio, with art that is ... unexpected. Charlotte takes Emily on an errand that is ... entirely unexpected. If I keep trying to describe the atmosphere, I'll run out of ellipses.

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