Debbie Cerda's blog

Fantastic Fest Review: Tales from the Organ Trade

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Tales from the Organ Trade Still Photo

A recurring urban legend is that of a business traveler who awakens in his hotel room after a nightcap in the local bar, finding himself in a bathtub full of ice and a bandaged incision. Upon examination at the hospital, he is informed by doctors that his kidney has been removed.

This cautionary tale would seem quite a fitting start for a horror film, and this year's Fantastic Fest featured a title that is reminiscent of this alleged morbid crime -- Tales from the Organ Trade. However, this film is actually a provocative documentary by writer/director Ric Esther Bienstock and narrated by David Cronenberg that will prompt many people to sign their organ donor card. More importantly, it should cause viewers to wonder what they would do if they or a loved one was in need of a transplant.

Across the world, thousands of people often wait for years for a donor organ while the general perception supported by doctors and the government focuses on the "exploitation of the human condition" to condemn illegal kidney transplants. Bienstock provides an in-depth and well-balanced view of this international phenomena. The stories of two people who have sought and failed to receive organ transplants through conventional means, as well as a third person who owes his survival to an illegal transplant, are contrasted with organ donors in the Philippines.

Fantastic Fest Review: The Fake

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The FakeSouth Korean writer/director Sang-ho Yeon created quite a stir at Fantastic Fest in 2012 with the disturbingly bleak animated drama, The King of Pigs. Serious tales conveyed through animation are rare, and Yeon shows no mercy in demonstrating the brutality and exploitative nature within various castes of South Korean society.

Yeon continues to expose the futility and atrocities suffered by the weak and lower class with his second feature-length animated drama Saibi (The Fake). A dying village is scheduled for evacuation before new construction begins and the land is flooded. Many of the villagers look to their church elder, Choi, to save them both figuratively and spiritually, along with the newly recruited Pastor. Unfortunately neither the villagers or Pastor are aware that Choi is a criminal wanted for fraud. He has promised to build a new housing complex for the villagers, when his actual plan is to take off once he's stolen all of their government compensation money.

Fantastic Fest Quick Snaps: 'We Gotta Get Out of This Place' Red Carpet

Simon and Zeke Hawkins

Generally Fantastic Fest programming is heavily centered around films from around the world, so it was great to see Texas production We Gotta Get Out of This Place on the slate of premieres at this year's festival. Directors Simon and Zeke Hawkins (seen above) may be LA filmmakers, but this thrilling drama set in the rural outskirts of Corpus Christi is firmly rooted in Texas.

Producer Justin X. Duprie is from the small town of Taft, Texas, where primary production of the film took place. Duprie had described his hometown to writer Dutch Southern, who was inspired to write the screenplay for We Gotta Get Out of This Place.

Fantastic Fest Review: Ragnarok

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Ragnarok posterIn 1904, Norwegian archaeologist Haakon Shetelig and Swedish archaeologist Gabriel Gustafson excavated one of the greatest discoveries of the Viking Age -- a burial mound located on the Oseberg farm near Tornberg, Norway, containing a well-preserved ship, grave goods and the skeletal remains of two women. The quality and abundance of items within the grave indicate that at least one of the interred was a woman of high status, and it has been suggested that she was the legendary Norwegian Queen Asa.

Norwegian director Mikkel Brænne Sandemose couples this archaeological find with the Norse myth of the end of the world's events in his action/adventure Ragnarok, which premiered at Fantastic Fest. This family-friendly film pays homage to blockbusters such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Goonies without the overdone Hollywood gloss. Don't get me wrong -- the movie includes plenty of long shots of sweeping landscapes with a majestic musical score to match, and CGI special effects reminiscent of the most memorable "cat-and-mouse" chase scenes of Jurassic Park. These assets make up the lovely packaging containing the true gift of writer John Kare Raake, an engaging and thrilling story of loss, intrigue, and family bonds that stretch over one thousand years.

Pål Sverre Hagen (Kon-Tiki, Troubled Water) portrays archaeologist Sigurd Svendsen, a widower whose obsession with solving the secrets of the Oseberg ship leaves him ignorant of his children's need for attention. His theory that Vikings had actually traveled further north than popular conception -- to the heavily wooded and unpopulated Finmark, the northernmost region of Norway referred to the "no man's land" that lies between Russia and Norway -- is not well-received by the museum patrons who've funded his research, and he is demoted from his position.

Sigurd's colleague Allan (Nicolai Cleve Broch) returns from an extended field expedition with a rune stone that has apparent ties to the Oseberg ship, as well as runes that translate into the phrase, "Man knows little." Is this phrase an observation, or is it a message from the past? Sigurd is determined to find out, and so with Allan and Allan's field assistant Elisabeth (Sofia Helin), he sets off on an expedition with his reluctant children Ragnhild (Marie Annette Tanderod Berglyd) and Brage (Julian Podolski) in tow.

Fantastic Fest 2013 Dispatch: Birthdays, Filmmakers and Festival Fatigue

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Devin Faraci and AJ BowenI can't possibly imagine how I would have managed this year's Fantastic Fest anywhere other than at the new Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline. Balancing the demands of a new day job and my first film project along with the festival has been a daunting task, but the ten-minute commute and ease of parking helps. Attending Fantastic Fest has always been an immersive experience for me as I soak up content and engage in social interactions with incredibly talented filmmakers, actors, fans and film critics -- such as Badass Digest's Devin Faraci (who's in Jodorowsky's Dune) and actor A.J. Bowen (The Sacrament) seen above -- from around the world.

I am also extremely fortunate that despite having lost my Superfan status of several years when the lottery was implemented, I've still had great experiences at Fantastic Fest. The only disadvantage is not being able to get into the high demand and secret screenings to sit with the Fantastic Fiends that I've known since the first fest in 2005. 

Fantastic Fest Interview: Clay Liford, 'Slash'

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Clay Liford

Local filmmaker Clay Liford's short film Slash (aka S/ash), which premiered at Dallas IFF in April, screens this week at Fantastic Fest. This wickedly funny short film portrays Sam (Arthur Dale), a 13-year-old boy who writes erotic fan fiction involving characters from the Harry Potter franchise. Not an unlikely premise when you think of Internet Rule #34: "If it exists, there's porn for it."

I met with Liford at a local coffeehouse where he frequently works on projects, and we spoke about Slash and its creation as well as other projects. Liford traveled this past week to New York for Independent Film Project (IFP) Film Week where the script for the feature-length version of Slash was included in a project. He describes his short film as "a very nerd movie about this subculture of fan fiction" and spoke of the challenge presented by references to copyrighted materials in an unintended light.

The selection of the name Slash contains a double meaning -- not only is "slash" a type of fan fiction that features homoerotic relationships (often male), but it's also a reference to Harry Potter's signature lightning-shaped scar.

Fantastic Fest 2013: North Austin Cuisine and Libations

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Fantastic Fest 2013

Fantastic Fest this year has moved to Alamo Drafthouse's largest facility at Lakeline -- ten screens and combined seating for 944 customers. Not only is the theater in a different part of Austin, but changes have been made to the standard Alamo Drafthouse menu at all locations to ensure customer satisfaction. Despite their popularity with many moviegoers, the potato skins and nachos have been removed from the menu as League and his culinary staff strive to improve consistency and quality of food items.

Eight days of consuming Alamo Drafthouse food during Fantastic Fest leaves many attendees craving local as well as inexpensive options. Although several of the restaurants nearest the new location are national chains like Fuddrucker's and Olive Garden, there's no shortage of great dining and drinking establishments accessible by vehicle within a three-mile radius, including several personal favorites of Slackerwood contributors. Although not reflected on the City of Austin Bike Map, Pecan Park Blvd has a bike lane that can be considered in the medium to high comfort range.

Navigating the area around Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline isn't too difficult once you get the "lay of the land." Remember that the theater is just northwest of the intersection of two major highways -- U.S. 183, which runs north/south, and Ranch Road (RR) 620, which becomes Toll Road 45 east of 183. Pay attention to signs to avoid tolls when driving north of the theater location by using "old 183," officially named South Bell Blvd.

Here's a few of our recommendations in the area, sorted by proximity to Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline:

Lakeline -- Immediate Vicinity

These restaurants are theoretically within walking or biking distance of Alamo Lakeline, but you want to exercise extreme caution around the high traffic zones of the U.S. 183 frontage roads and RR 620.

  • Smashburger (14028 N Hwy 183, Bldg. G-310) -- This newly opened burger franchise is a stone's throw from the front of the theater. Although not a personal favorite, its proximity ensures that I'll be stopping in to try a truffle mushroom Swiss burger.

Review: The Family

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The Family PosterA favorite cable television series in recent years for me has been USA Network's In Plain Sight about U.S. Marshals charged with relocating and protecting federal witnesses. The dramatization of people who must adjust to a new life with a new identity is engaging and thought provoking. How does a person not only leave behind their friends and relations, but also change their occupation or interests to avoid detection?

Based on by French crime fiction author Tonino Benacquista, writer/director Luc Besson's The Family provides darkly humorous insight of a former Mafioso and his family's existence within a federal witness program. When extortion and illegal activities are all you've known for your entire life, it's not easy to adjust to a different lifestyle -- even in the idyllic setting of the French Riviera or the historic and slower-paced Normandy.

Robert De Niro portrays Fred Blake/Giovanni Manzoni, who has a $20 million dollar bounty on his head after ratting out the boss to the Feds. Several years have passed since the Manzoni family had to leave their Brooklyn home and yet they still haven't quite given up old habits. Wife Maggie Blake (Michelle Pfeiffer) has a knack for setting off explosions and son Warren (John D'Leo) sets up extortion and bribery schemes in his school.

Only 17-year-old teen Belle (Glee star Dianna Agron) desires a somewhat normal life, with a fantasy of true romance to save her from her family's restrained existence. Meanwhile the family's handlers, including Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), keep a watchful eye on the Manzoni clan. Settling in doesn't go too well for the family, and it's not long before a flock of hitmen descend on their small hamlet to eliminate the Manzonis.

The casting of The Family is a mixed bag, with De Niro playing his typecast role with natural humor. Pfeiffer also nails it as a Brooklyn mafioso wife who misses the good life, yet loves her husband and children fiercely. Agron appears miscast as the daughter of a mafioso -- she's able to display the Manzoni sociopathic tendency towards rage and violence, but her perfect features and lack of a Brooklyn accent are glaring against the rest of the Manzoni family. At 27, Agron is outgrowing her ability to realistically portray a high-school teenager.

Ready, Set, Fund: Animation Love and Movie Geekiness

Is There Anyone Out There?

Ready, Set, Fund is a column about crowdfunding and related fundraising endeavors for Austin and Texas independent film projects.

I've had a passion for animated films for as long as I can remember, having grown up with Disney classics such as Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty ... and as an adult, enjoying The Iron Giant. A short animated film project that's currently funding on Kickstarter through September 10 caught my interest -- Is There Anyone Out There?

Texas writer/director Jonathan Reynolds has brought together a talented creative team to support this family-friendly film, which addresses the universal question in a whimsical manner. 

The score for Is There Anyone Out There? has already been performed and recorded in Austin by British composer Andy Dollerson and Austin's own Tosca String Quartet. San Antonio-based voice actor Terry Anderson is providing the narration for the tale of two boys questioning their fathers whether there's life beyond their own planet.

Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler

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The Butler Movie PosterWith the current social climate and concern over racism, it seems an appropriate time for a film about the civil rights movement in America to remind everyone how much has -- and perhaps hasn't -- changed in the last 50 years. In Lee Daniels' The Butler, we witness significant events and the politics that both impeded and fueled efforts by African-Americans and their supporters to effect change.

The Butler was inspired by a true story and tells the story of African-American Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), who serves as a butler in the White House for multiple presidents throughout several decades, including the civil rights movement.

Born in Macon, Georgia in the 1920s, as a young boy Cecil Gaines works in the cotton field with his mother and dad until brutal overseer Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) swiftly and violently tears Cecil's family apart. Cecil is taken into the "big house" by the sympathetic Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), where he learns the valuable skills of a house servant. Recognizing that he will likely suffer the same fate as his father at the hands of Thomas, Cecil travels in search of a new life and employment in a safer environment -- not an easy task in the South.

Desperation drives him to commit a theft for which he could be hanged, but instead he is rescued by hotel butler Maynard (Clarence Williams III). Under Maynard's tutelage, Cecil not only gains experience as a professional servant but how to survive in a white man's world. From there Cecil makes his way to Washington, D.C. where he continues to work as a hotel butler until he is discovered and plucked to the most prestigious location of all -- the White House during the 1957 Eisenhower Administration.

Thus begins the journey of Cecil in The Butler -- as a silent observer of the politics behind the movement that affects himself and his family. While he quietly accepts his fate, his son Louis (David Oyelowo) questions and acts upon the disenfranchisement he and his peers experience. Scenes are intertwined between Cecil going about the daily functions of special events at the White House, and Louis's activism with the Freedom Riders and later the Black Panthers. Meanwhile, Cecil's wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) deals with the disconnect between her husband and eldest by filling the void with booze and the attention of philandering neighbor Howard (Terrence Howard).

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