Here's a roundup of Austin film news over the past week as well as some details on upcoming screenings and film-related events.
- Renowned recluses Terrence Malick and Christian Bale were spotted last week at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Christian Bale has signed on to star in one of Malick's three active projects. The untitled film is scheduled to begin production sometime next summer.
- In celebration of the Austin Teen Book Festival on October 1, David Levithan, author of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, will be in attendance for the screening of the movie version at 10 pm on Friday, September 30 at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. A Q&A with the author will follow the screening. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, starring Michael Cera (Superbad) and Kat Dennings (Charlie Bartlett), is a comedy about two people thrown together by their love of music.
- Fantastic Fest and the Austin Film Society Present: Ti West's Fantastic Fest Hangover. The horror writer/director will be in attendance for screenings of all three of his films (The Roost, The House of the Devil), including his latest, The Innkeepers, at 7 pm on October 2 at the Alamo Drafthouse Village. The Innkeepers, starring Sara Paxton (The Last House on the Left), tells the story of the last two employees at a haunted hotel that is scheduled to close. The film premiered at SXSW 2011. Check out Jenn's Fantastic Fest preview for Ti West movie details.
While I know many film-festgoers who pack five movies into a day plus parties and declare "Sleep is the enemy!" I'm not one of them. I'm a two-flick-a-day woman, maybe three if I don't have any writing assigments due. I almost never go to midnight movies or late parties and am generally Cinderella-like about my evenings.
Saturday was an exception: I went to four Fantastic Fest screenings -- two were shorts collections so technically I saw nearly two dozen films -- and attended a midnight event after that. And now I'm up at 9 am on a Sunday morning so I can get my tickets for the day and write this dispatch. I'm not sure I could do this every day for a week; I admire the stamina of those who do.
I had an amazing stroke of good luck getting tickets Saturday morning -- everything I wanted, including the famous Fantastic Debates, which are so popular I've never been able to attend. It was in fact too good to be true, as I found out later that day that a ticketing glitch massively overbooked the Debates and any ticket over #150 would be invalid. I had #271. Fortunately, I was able to land a spot in the photographers' pen, but more on that later.
One of the most talked-about films of Fantastic Fest 2009 was a campy gross-out horror movie called The Human Centipede (First Sequence). Marketed as "100 percent medically accurate," it told the story of a crazed surgeon (played marvelously by Dieter Laser), hell-bent on attaching three human beings together into a human centipede. I missed this film at the fest, finally watching it on Netflix last month. I found it to be an interesting angle on gross-out horror.
Flash forward to Fantastic Fest 2011 where the opening-night movie is the sequel to the 2009 film: The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence). Human Centipede II is about Martin (Laurence R. Harvey), a morbidly obese, demented psychopath who has a sickening obsession with the original movie. Martin's obsession with Human Centipede manifests itself in the creation of an actual human centipede. The first three-quarters of this film is spent watching Martin stalk, assault and graphically abuse the victims who will become parts of his sickening creation. The last quarter is spent showing, in all of its gory details, Martin constructing his creation.
It's in the last scenes of the movie where writer/director Tom Six goes too far. The construction of the centipede contained some of the most gratuitous, gory and over-the-top imagery I have ever seen on film. I won't go into any details of what I watched but I will say that the imagery reached a level of pornographic detail that even the most depraved could not appreciate. I have a very high tolerance for gore in film but there is a threshold that even I don't want to cross. This movie far exceeded that limit and I can tell you this is a movie I wish I could un-see.
When I sat down to watch Human Centipede II I had no idea what to expect. The first film, while graphic, followed an approach to horror that I can appreciate: "Less is more." It was not as gory as I'd anticipated it would be. It was graphic in parts but it was also campy and I appreciated it for what it was. Human Centipede II has no point and delivers no redeeming value.
My Fantastic Fest Day 2 started in a coffeeshop with good coffee and strong wireless. I was waiting for the online ticketing system to open for non-VIP badgeholders. I got on around 9:30 am and shortly after 10, I was picking tickets for my movies for the day. I was fairly lucky -- I got three out of five tickets I really wanted. This new system works well and I cannot throw enough praise to Fantastic Fest for making it happen.
My first film of the day was from Japan: Body Temperature. This movie deals with immature relationships we can develop when we substitute real human relationships with artificial ones. The artificial angle here is a man who develops a "relationship" with a realistic-looking sex doll, and what happens when he makes real human contact.
Between films, I retreated to the "relaxing" atmosphere of the Alamo Drafthouse porch. Actually the porch is one of the best parts of Fantastic Fest and if you are not hanging out with us, you are missing out. Come say hello! While on the porch, I discovered something wonderful. In a brilliant marketing move, FEARnet set up an ice cream truck and fed us all delicious swirled ice cream cones. Yummy!
My next movie was another strange selection, Underwater Love -- a movie that crosses Howard the Duck with late-night Cinemax soft-core porn and music from Tenacious D. It's the story of a kappa, a creature from Japanese mythology, who returns to visit the woman who was his girlfriend before he died and was resurrected as a kappa. This movie has some of the strangest sex scenes I have seen and is extremely strange and funny.
My next stop was Mondo Tees. I stood in line to acquire one of the Drew Struzan Frankenstein posters (more info on the poster here). I am an avid Struzan collector and I was happy to be one of 50 people to get this poster at Fantastic Fest.
After that, I went to see El Narco (also known as El Infierno). El Narco tells the story of the drug cartels in Mexico. Because of the Mondo sale, I missed the first part of the film. What I did see was great. It was funny at times and shocking at others. It made a great statement on what is happing in Mexico today. Writer/director Luis Estrada did a Q&A at the end that was awesome. I highly recommend this movie.
Sports movies ought not to be talky. We could argue that Moneyball isn't really a sports movie -- it happens to take place in the world of sports, but its true focus is the growing battle between science and tradition. Even so, a movie with so much baseball in it ought to have a little more zip.
Fortunately, the talkiness is often snappy dialogue, well-written by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian. The movie's dialogue seems to be written for a lighter-toned movie than the occasionally sluggish Moneyball, based on real-life people and events.
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the general manager of the Oakland A's, a major-league baseball team trying to compete successfully with teams that have far larger budgets. It's impossible for Beane to attract top-drawer players with third-tier salaries. He needs to find another way to improve his team, and believes he has the answer after meeting Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Brand, a disciple of Bill James, believes that he can use a certain set of statistics to find the players who will bring them the most runs ... and many of those players are bargains because they look funny when they pitch, or get most of their runs on walks.
Fantastic Fest isn't the only movie-related event going on in town this week (although it often feels different when attending the fest). Austin has some interesting special movie events that tie into other film festivals. As this goes live, the Cine Las Americas free screening of El Infierno is about to start. And while Incendiary: The Willingham Case has a theatrical release in town today, there is a special reception at tonight's screenings with local filmmakers Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr at Violet Crown Cinema. Seats are limited, so don't wait any longer to buy your tickets, as you will want to talk about the film after you see it.
If you were lucky enough to see Thundersoul at SXSW 2010, you probably want to watch it again on Thursday at Alamo Drafthouse Village as part of the Austin Film Society "Best of the Fest" series. If you haven't, you'll want to see it, and not just because Jamie Foxx is now attached and actively promoting the film. You will be dancing in your seats, inspired to reconnect with your dreams and determined to fight for music programs in schools as you enjoy the story of a Houston high-school music teacher who turned a stage band into a world-renowned funk band still selling albums today.
Movies We've Seen:
Dolphin Tale 3D -- Chris has mixed feelings, and says his "litmus test for any kids' movie is whether it entertains the adult members of its audience while keeping kids engaged." Find out what Chris and his daughter thought about it in his review. (wide)
Incendiary: The Willingham Case -- This locally produced documentary couldn't be more relevant if it tried. Regardless of your politics, Incendiary focuses on facts, not opinion, and the disturbing resistance of admitting to potential errors. Don reviewed and says it's "the sort of provocative documentary the Powers That Be don't want you to see." If you don't believe him, read my SXSW review. (Violet Crown Cinema)
Sometimes Fantastic Fest feels less like a film festival and more like a big cocktail party where you know almost everyone there (which never happens at cocktail parties I attend) and oh yes, you can leave the party at any time and go watch some pretty good movies. If only we'd had martini glasses in the tent set up outside Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, the illusion would have been complete.
I arrived at Alamo around 4 pm, too late for the first round of movies but not too late to socialize. So many people have been returning to this fest year after year after year (since 2005) that it really does start to feel like I know everyone. And that unfamiliar guy over there? Turns out he's that film blogger I've been chatting with via Twitter, here for his first Fantastic Fest. The only problem with this situation is that I have to be careful when writing so I don't sound too "inside baseball" and bore all of you who weren't there.
After more socializing than I normally do in three months, I slipped into a screening of Boys on the Run just to watch the short playing before it, Family Unit. Austin filmmaker Thomas Humphries, the man behind the Blackmagic Rollercoaster production company, directed the film. Blackmagic Rollercoaster has brought us some might strange Fantastic Fest bumpers (the short shorts that "advertise" the fest before each screening). Family Unit is about a family outing in Mayfield Park (I noticed a peacock) and it is, um, not what you would expect. On the other hand, I kind of did expect to be simultaneously bemused and slightly stunned, so I suppose you could call it predictable in that sense.
I have really mixed feelings about Dolphin Tale, which opens today in Austin theaters. On the one hand, it's relatively entertaining, has a couple of nice messages at its core, and it has some great actors in it. On the other hand, it is tailored and finessed within an inch of its life to win the affections of the audience. It does so by delivering trite-and-not-too-serious conflict, a fat handful of plot threads that weave together into a tidy narrative, and a deluge of boy-on-dolphin underwater footage that could easily be repurposed into a mesmerizing screensaver. Not that anyone but your local office products store has screensavers anymore, but you know what I mean.
To describe the plot fully would require several paragraphs and a score card. I'm pretty sure my 5-year-old daughter didn't catch all of it, but she waited patiently for the grownups to stop talking so the movie could get back to the kids and dolphins.
It boils down to this: Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) has trouble focusing at school, what with his daddy-abandonment issues and his college-aged cousin headed for a tour in the Middle East. Plans to catch up on his studies in summer school go awry when he finds himself rescuing a beached dolphin (eventually named Winter) and becomes The Only Person Who Can Inspire In It The Will To Live as it convalesces at the local aquarium.
The cast fills out with not one but two wrinkly voices of wisdom (Morgan Freeman and Kris Kristofferson), hot middle-aged mom Ashley Judd, aquarium brat Hazel (the adorable Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who is the best thing about the movie), and her dad Dr. Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.), who is trying to save the dolphin and the down-on-its-luck aquarium at the same time.
Couldn't get a badge for Fantastic Fest? If you were a Cine Las Americas badgeholder this year, you can see a free movie during the fest anyway, with the director in attendance.
I love it when film festivals collide this way; both fests bring outstanding international programming in a variety of genres to Austin. I also love free. I especially love it when there is free at a festival.
Tomorrow at 2 pm at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, Cine Las Americas is hosting a special screening of the Fantastic Fest selection, El Infierno. This is not on the Fantastic Fest schedule, so you don't have to worry about getting in a queue for the online ticketing system. This particularly screening is reserved exclusively for CLA badgeholders, so unless you also happen to have a Fantastic Fest badge, you will probably not be able to see this movie again anytime soon (El Infierno screens twice as part of the regular Fantastic Fest schedule).
The hitch is that you need to get to the theater on time and bring your badge from Cine Las Americas. If you're like me and attend a lot of festivals, you keep your badges, but then you have to find the right badge. To make it easier to find it, the badge has the 2011 Cine Las Americas poster on it, pictured here.
Just remember to leave plenty of time for parking -- it's only day two of Fantastic Fest so there is probably a full parking lot.
A potential pitfall of reviewing Incendiary: The Willingham Case is that rather than passing judgment on this engaging and enraging documentary, any critic with a desire for justice will instead pass judgment on the film's subject matter -- the infamous death penalty case of Cameron Todd Willingham.
The case began with the death of Willingham's three young daughters in a house fire in Corsicana, Texas in 1991. Willingham was home at the time of the fire. Despite his claims that he tried to save his daughters, he was charged with their murder by arson based on evidence suggesting someone had started the fire using a liquid accelerant.
Willingham was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1992, largely on the fire investigation evidence and the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said Willingham confessed to starting the fire. (The informant later recanted his testimony.) A psychiatrist also testified that Willingham, who had a minor criminal record, was an "extremely severe sociopath;" the psychiatrist later was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for his questionable record.