Caitlin Moore's blog
Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.
Today's inspired choice comes from Austin Film Society Associate Artistic Director Holly Herrick. Her pick is a classic from 1962: Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color presents Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates: Part 1 and Part 2, directed by Norman Foster. "AKA, the only time I will ever prefer Disney to Sidney Lumet," Holly says. Here's why she loves this one so:
On Christmas Eve every year, after our traditional holiday dinner of hominy grits and homemade sausage served with King corn syrup, my brothers and sisters and I dig out an old re-recorded VHS tape from sometime in the early 80s of the 1962 Disney's Wonderful World of Color version of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. The film is an adaptation of a popular 1865 novel depicting Netherlands life in the early 19th century, focusing on the children of a working class Dutch family who dream of winning a speed skating contest.
Sidney Lumet was the first to adapt this story for the American television audience in 1958 through the long-running anthology series presented on NBC by Hallmark, Hallmark's Hall of Fame. Lumet's Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates became the most viewed Hallmark Hall of Fame episode to date, and I can only imagine that the Disney produced version was in part a business reaction to the popularity of Lumet's musical, which starred Hollywood leading man Tab Hunter in the title role, opposite singer and starlet Peggy King.
While the Lumet musical is definitely worth watching (particularly for Lumet die-hards who will appreciate things like a John Fiegler cameo), I prefer the Wonderful World of Color version by early talkies-actor-turned-TV-director Norman Foster. Foster's Hans Brinker is not a musical, and it is shot on location in the Netherlands and in Sweden (rather than in a studio in Brooklyn like the Lumet version). It is a mostly Scandinavian production, featuring an all-Scandinavian cast reciting English dialogue.
If you stop to absorb the lyrics of most bluegrass songs, you’ll find they’re not just sad, they’re heart, gut and soul-wrenching. This gives you an idea of what to expect from The Broken Circle Breakdown, a romantic drama that uses bluegrass music to frame its characters' tumultuous lives.
Directed by Felix van Groeningen, The Broken Circle Breakdown follows two young creatives, Elise and Didier, as they meet, fall in love, play in a band together and soon enough end up married and parents to a little girl. As life continues to throw surprises at them, they find the strength to keep going in different ways.
Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh play the leads, and each brings great charisma and energy to the screen. Physically tiny compared to Heldenbergh's towering, banjo-playing figure, Baetens exudes passion and heart as Elise, an impulsive tattoo artist with a lovely singing voice and superstitious leanings. Heldenbergh is alternately gruff and warm as Didier, Elise's atheistic counterpart who is defined by his deep love for American culture and deep hate for its politics.
The two have sharply different views when it comes to religion, philosophy, and just about everything else, but their chemistry and love for their daughter make them a believable couple who you hope finds their way towards happiness.
But just like in a bluegrass song, happiness is hard to come by. When Elise and Didier's daughter Maybelle becomes sick with leukemia, they are forced to watch helplessly as medicine, luck and their own bond as a couple all begin to fail. Maybelle, played by the extraordinary Nell Cattrysse, is the star that guides these two, and when her light begins to fade they are both at a loss.
It was another busy year for Texas filmmakers, and it looks like their hard work will once again be recognized with awards. Last week the 29th annual Film Independent Spirit Awards nominations were announced, and Austin and Texas-connected productions including Mud, Upstream Color, Computer Chess and Before Midnight are in the running in a variety of categories.
Up for Best Director you'll find Austinite Jeff Nichols (who participated in a featured panel at Austin Film Festival last October), nominated for Mud, and Shane Carruth, director of the Dallas-filmed Upstream Color. Mud (Holly Herrick's review) will also receive the Robert Altman award, which recognizes one film for its director, casting director and ensemble cast. Upstream Color (J.C.'s review) was nominated for Carruth and fellow Texan David Lowery's editing work, as well.
Dallas Buyers Club has all the hooks you'd expect to find in a film released during prime awards-angling season. A couple of big stars, a David and Goliath story based on true events, a topic that will inspire moral outrage, and as you've probably heard, major physical transformations from not one but two actors involved.
The cynical part of me went in fearing heavy-handedness and emotional exploitation, but I was relieved to find that director Jean-Marc Vallee largely steers clear of over-sentimentality. Instead he simply tells the story of a flawed rebel searching for dignity in a terrifying situation, and though a little too glossy at times, the movie satisfies in many ways and is bound to capture a golden statue or two.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a swaggering Dallas electrician/rodeo cowboy who is diagnosed with HIV so advanced that he's told he has a mere 30 days to live. The stigma that this is a gay man's disease, especially common in 1985 (when the story is set), riles homophobic Ron as much as the health implications. He soon discovers what he really needs to be angry about, though; there are no promising medications available for Ron and others like him, and the American system operates as if it truly doesn't care about people with HIV and AIDS.
With his life at stake and an entire federal framework that he feels needs to be corrected, Ron diverts his rage into travel and research and searches for alternative options. Never the law-abiding type, he soon creates a buyers club, a setup that skirts the bounds of illegality by selling memberships rather than pills. Once dues are paid, members receive an array of drugs, vitamins and supplements (mostly acquired from a progressive doctor in Mexico) that are not yet approved by the FDA. As the leader of this club, Ron satisfies his desire for both control and adventure -- he will not sit idly by as his body and health deteriorate.
McConaughey is enthralling as the womanizing cowboy turned AIDS-rights activist. The role allows him to strut, connive, charm and storytell using the precisely channeled charisma he's known for, and his fiery presence (made only more searing by yes, his remarkably gaunt figure) is the beating heart of the film. Though you never forget you're looking at a dying man, McConaughey infuses his performance with sparks of crackling energy.
Written and directed by University of Texas graduate Michael Bilandic (who we interviewed before Austin Film Festival began), Hellaware is a playful modern morality tale that explores the ups and downs a young photographer experiences while trying to make himself a part of the New York art scene.
Hellaware stars Keith Poulson (Somebody Up There Likes Me) as Nate, a slacker with abstract dreams of fame and just a few vague ideas about how to actually achieve it. After his girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil) dumps him to be with the pigtail-wearing Brooklyn artist of the moment, he descends into a downward spiral of self-pity and complaints. One night while attempting to mute his sorrows with booze, drugs and the internet, Nate and his friends (played by Sophia Takal and Duane C. Wallace) stumble across something on YouTube that is mesmerizing in its repulsiveness.
An absurd rap/rock video made by an Insane Clown Posse-type group (they're called the Young Torture Killers) captures Nate's attention, and before he knows it he's setting off to Delaware to track down a bunch of violence-obsessed teenagers with a taste for purple drank. Nate looks down on the group (he thinks they are backwards and terrible musicians), but is also intrigued by their authenticity. These audacious kids are different from the pretentious wannabe-artists he's surrounded by, and ultimately he hopes to capitalize on their rawness to his own advantage -- ideally in the form of a photography show that will jumpstart his career.
What follows is an arrangement where Nate takes what he wants from his subjects (exploitative photos they haven't given permission to use), and then a sleazy art gallery owner in turn takes advantage of Nate. Talk of truth and beauty goes out the window when money and notoriety beckon, and soon enough everyone starts to show their ugly sides as tempers flare, friendships tangle, and egos get really, really big.
Austin Film Festival ended last week, but the news flashes aren't over yet. The 2013 Audience Award winners were announced Monday and include a few with Austin/Texas connections -- most notably All of Me, an Austin-based documentary, and Sombras de Azul, which was written and directed by Austin filmmaker Kelly Daniela Norris.
The Marquee Feature Award went to Tommy Oliver's family drama 1982, and the Narrative Feature pick Beside Still Waters was also a Jury Award winner. Directed and co-written by Chris Lowell, this ensemble piece explores heavy themes using humor and heart. Many Audience Award winners from past years have gone on to more widespread attention and acclaim, including Silver Linings Playbook, Spinning Plates and 2011's The Artist.
Take a look at the full list of 2013 awardees:
- 1982 -- Marquee Feature Audience Award, written and directed by Tommy Oliver.
- Beside Still Waters -- Narrative Feature Audience Award, written by Chris Lowell and Mohit Narang and directed by Chris Lowell.
The territory Alexander Payne explores in his films, that place where melancholy and outlandish human behavior collide, is once again accessed in his latest movie, Nebraska. Starring Bruce Dern as an aging alcoholic and Will Forte as his well-meaning son, the film meanders across the plains and valleys of family relationships, nostalgia and regret to reveal moments of sad beauty and awkward humor.
Falling for a magazine marketing ploy, old Woody Grant (Dern) believes he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. Though his son David (Forte) knows it's simply junk mail, he has nothing better to do -- so he agrees to drive from Montana to Nebraska with his father to collect the money and let him find out the truth for himself. Along the mishap-laden journey, the two men visit Woody's hometown and encounter a cast of family and old friends.
Filmed in black and white in a landscape defined by sparseness and open space, Nebraska is filled with striking moments of stark desolation and piercing loneliness. Woody embodies these traits himself; he is a man who often tried his best over the years, but never shared himself with his wife and sons and mostly devoted himself to drinking instead. As David travels with his estranged father and finds out more about him, he is greeted with surprise after surprise and realizes he never knew much about Woody at all. The more he learns the more confused he becomes about his own life, which he seems to be passively enduring.
Payne explores similar themes to the ones found in About Schmidt, but in that film he cleverly used an epistolary device to dive into the depths of his main character's head and heart. Unfortunately he has less success with revelation here; Woody remains largely inscrutable and distant, and David functions as a question-asker and chauffeur but doesn't get to do much else. Overshadowed by imagery (lovely as it is), the two main characters never feel fully formed in the ways that many of Payne's previous creations have been.
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.
In Hellaware, a sly comedy written and directed by University of Texas graduate Michael M. Bilandic, a young New York City photographer stumbles upon a crude and downright terrible YouTube video made by a group of suburban Delaware rappers. Oddly intrigued, he tracks them down in the hopes they'll offer up enough perfectly edgy material to help him break into the fancy art world scene, but all he really ends up exposing is his own naivete.
Bilandic's second feature has already captured more attention than usual for an indie film thanks to a creative promotional strategy. Weeks before Hellaware's first screening, the filmmakers posted the music video featured in the movie (which they designed to be over-the-top and hilariously horrible), and sat back and watched as it amassed over 100,000 combined views. Commenters called it out for being vulgar and just plain bad, unaware they were critiquing something never meant to be taken seriously.
Hellaware stars Keith Poulson, Sophia Takal and Kate Lyn Sheil, and it will screen Friday, Oct. 25 (10:45 pm, Alamo Village) and Wednesday, Oct. 30 (9:45 pm, Hideout) during Austin Film Festival. Via email, I had the chance to ask Bilandic a few questions about the video experiment, his life as a filmmaker thus far, and what he's looking forward to seeing at AFF.
Slackerwood: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
Michael Bilandic: Yeah, pretty much, but I didn't really know what that meant. I remember reading some quote from Madonna a million years ago where she accused Abel Ferrara of sitting in a corner drinking wine while everyone else made the movie (Dangerous Game). I remember thinking, "Shit, I could do that! If that's what being a filmmaker is, I could get into that!" I honestly thought it would be some easy career.
Unfortunately, it's a lot harder than lurking around getting drunk. I actually wound up being Abel's assistant for a while, and it turns out he's one of the busiest and hardest working people ever. So the job description I was working with turned out to be wrong. I blame Madonna for disseminating that false info.
There are four doctors in the United States who openly and legally perform third-trimester abortions. They arrived at their positions not with long-standing intention, but rather due to chance and a stubborn sense of duty -- both to women and to murdered abortion doctor George Tiller.
Tiller performed late-term abortions at his Wichita, Kansas women's health clinic for decades before he was fatally shot by an anti-choice activist in 2009. Though long the target of serious violence (Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993 and his clinic was firebombed in 1986) and also accused of criminal behavior (he was ultimately found not guilty), Tiller never abandoned his simple personal precept: "Women need abortions and I'm going to do them."
After Tiller, the humanistic documentary directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, avoids discussing abortion from a political point of view and is not a tribute to the late Kansas physician. Instead, the film focuses on Drs. LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella -- former colleagues and friends of Tiller who have pledged to continue Tiller's mission to meet the needs of a very small group of women.
Late-term abortions account for less than 1% of all abortions performed in this country, and most women who seek them have hearts overflowing with fresh grief. The late discovery of a serious fetal abnormality or a health issue that would threaten the lives of both mother and fetus necessitate consulting with a different doctor than their own, one whose office is likely far from home and surrounded by vocal protesters holding graphic signs.
Other women who seek the procedure do so for different reasons; they are victims of incest or rape, they suffer from emotional disorders, or sometimes they simply lack the financial and family resources to imagine giving birth to and raising a baby. No matter what brings a woman to one of these clinics, the road before her isn't going to be easy.
The anti-abortion demonstrators who take issue with the doctors featured in After Tiller often embrace the idea that people who perform and seek abortions are cold, callous and disrespectful of life. The filmmakers quietly illustrate otherwise by observing these four as they go about their daily routines of speaking to and maybe treating women whose lives have not gone as planned. In these moments it's clear that agonizing decisions are made at these doctors' offices. God is frequently mentioned. There are tears and hugs. Ultimately, complicated gratitude is expressed.