Jette Kernion's blog

Lone Star Cinema: Kid Blue

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Kid Blue poster

"Of all liars, the smoothest and most convincing is memory."* I saw Kid Blue at the Paramount during Austin Film Festival 1997, and I remember a lively, responsive audience that loved a very weird and very funny movie from 1973. Afterward, the film's star Dennis Hopper and screenwriter (and Austin author) Bud Shrake had a rollicking good time onstage telling crazy stories about shooting the movie in Mexico.

I've been encouraging people to get their hands on the movie ever since, but it's not on DVD or Blu-ray and it hasn't been screened in Austin since AFF. Fortunately, it's available online via Amazon, although the picture/sound quality is not stellar.

Over the past 17 years (damn, it cannot have been that long), I overhyped myself on Kid Blue. But it's a fascinating movie, if not as funny as I remembered it. As a 1970s oddity, the counterculture Western falls somewhere between the barely comprehensible Eggshells (Tobe Hooper's first feature, read Don's review) and a movie I like far more than it deserves, Harry and Walter Go to New York.

The counterculture Western opens with a botched train robbery by a gang that includes Bick (Hopper), aka the notorious Kid Blue. Sick of the outlaw life, he decides to go straight and get a legitimate job, and he ends up in the small Texas town of Dime Box.

And it is in Dime Box (the movie's original title, incidentally) that this long-haired ex-bandit encounters The Man, in all his incarnations. All Bick wants to do is lead a normal, law-abiding life, but Sheriff "Mean John" Simpson (Ben Johnson) is automatically suspicious, and other self-important townsmen dismiss and belittle him as a clumsy, naive hoodlum. (Hopper was in his thirties at the time, but he looks like a baby.) He finds a potential friend in Reese (Warren Oates), but his wife (Lee Purcell) seems a little too friendly. 

Kid Blue may be set in the early 20th century (it's a bit vague on that point) but the attitudes are pure 1973, with the more pious townspeople spouting cliches about patriotism, the unemployed/poor bringing it on themselves, young men needing to learn respect for their elders, and native Americans being "savages." The local preacher has an interesting drug habit, and the town's Native Americans are continually smoking something mind-altering.

Au Revoir, and Don't Forget to Feed the Parrot

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Last Night at the Alamo 2007

"Good-bye. Don't forget to feed the parrot!" shrieked Flora, who disliked this prolongation of the ceremony of saying farewell, as every civilized traveller must.

"What parrot?" they all shrieked back from the fast-receding platform, just as they were meant to do.

But it was too much trouble to reply. Flora contented herself with muttering, "Oh, any parrot, bless you all," and with a final affectionate wave of her hand to Mrs. Smiling, she drew back into the carriage and, opening a fashion journal, composed herself for the journey.

--Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

Saying farewell to Slackerwood has been very difficult. And I do think of it as "au revoir" -- I'm still in Austin, I'm still writing, and so are many of the current Slackerwood contributors. You'll see us again.

Movies This Year: Our Reviews of Upcoming Releases

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KRISHA

Slackerwood may be winding down, but the Austin film and festival scene is going strong. We've reviewed a number of movies at local and national film fests that have not yet had a full theatrical release. Many of them have Austin and/or Texas ties.

Reviews for movies with upcoming Austin theatrical/VOD release dates, where available:

Slackerwood: Where We're All Going (We Hope)

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Slackerwood contributors 2013

I originally said that today -- Wednesday, May 27 -- would be the last day Slackerwood would publish new content. But we're going to finish tomorrow instead. As I've said often, well, it is called Slackerwood after all. So please come back on Thursday for a farewell and one final Lone Star Cinema that I always said I would write and never did (until now).

I'm very pleased that we'll still get to enjoy writing from Slackerwood contributors at other websites. Of course, this list is subject to change, but here's what I know right now:

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.

Lone Star Cinema: Poltergeist (1982)

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Poltergeist poster from 1982I realize I'm cheating a bit by considering Poltergeist a Lone Star Cinema selection, since the connections seem pretty sparse, as you'll see in the last paragraph. Watching the trailer for the upcoming remake (in theaters later this month) made me want to see the 1982 movie again -- I'd seen it only once before, on a bootleg VHS tape in the mid-1980s.

The most surprising thing about Poltergeist is how very odd it is. It's just weird, at least from a contemporary point of view. It's as though someone took the hallmarks of Steven Spielberg's 1980s filmmaking and twisted them into something almost distastefully creepy. That someone may have been director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) or producer/co-writer Spielberg himself. I was entirely absorbed by the movie this go-round, but I can't really say I liked it.

For anyone left who hasn't heard of the movie (or only knows its "They're here!" tagline), Poltergeist is about a typical suburban family that has to deal with strange, supernatural activities in their otherwise  typical suburban house, just as contractors are digging up part of the yard for a swimming pool. The younger daughter, Carol Anne, is particularly susceptible ... and eventually vanishes into thin air, although audible from the static-y TV set (who else remembers static?).

One thing I do remember from seeing Poltergeist as a teenager is my utter amazement that even though Carol Anne is kidnapped by supernatural beings, the family continues to live in the house. I still can't believe they stay there as long as they do, although that does add extra satisfaction to the final scene. This time, though, I can't believe that they don't call the police or let anyone know about Carol Anne's appearance except a handful of parapsychologists, led by Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight). And of course you know Zelda Rubinstein is going to turn up eventually.

(Aside: While I saw Poltergeist on crappy VHS, I saw Poltergeist 2 in a theater, on a date. I realize now that I remembered the sequel more clearly than the original, which led to further surprises since I recalled different outcomes for certain characters. I am slightly tempted to watch the sequel again to verify, but I also remember that movie as being mega-dumb, so nope.)

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