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AFF Review: Sironia

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Sironia

If you're a fan of music-heavy movies, you will likely love Sironia. If you usually shy away from them, especially when the lead is a musician himself, you'll be pleasantly surprised with Brandon Dickerson's feature film debut. 

"Life is what happens when you're making other plans." In the case of Thomas (Wes Cunningham), when plans for stardom start requiring compromise, he and his expectant wife escape to Sironia, Texas for a simpler life. As it usually happens, the act of running from instead of running to is never fast enough. 

Early in Sironia, the movie seems like it might follow the trope of artistic integrity versus money, and be merely a vehicle for showcasing Cunningham's songs. However, Sironia isn't a vanity film, and the longer it progresses the more impressive it gets. While Cunningham's music is integral to the story and in fact written prior to the script, the songs are seamlessly worked in and never overwhelm the core story. It's not quite a cinematically realized concept album like Once, although in both cases the music is integral to the film. Sironia isn't just about a moment in time, but about lives trapped by holding on to a particular moment.

AFF Review: You Hurt My Feelings

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John Merriman, Courtney Davis, Macon Blair and Lilian & Violet Collins in You Hurt My Feelings

"You hurt my feelings," a small girl tells her male nanny (manny?) in the opening segment of this slice-of-life, independent film. John (John Merriman) seems an odd choice of a babysitter; he passively lets the kids climb all over him and tends to stare out into space and lose himself in contemplation. What is he contemplating? Why his ex-girlfriend Courtney (Courtney Davis) would break up with him to date a guy named Macon (Macon Blair) who admits that he shares more than a passing resemblance to Johnny.

You Hurt My Feelings moves with the seasons, slowly letting us peek into elements of John's personal life. One of the suprising aspects of the movie is how like a silent film it seems. There are scenes where John and Courtney don't speak aloud, but their motions and facial expressions speak for them. Unlike a silent film, however, the only soundtrack to this movie is composed of incidental noises and songs.

AFF Review: An Ordinary Family

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Filmed in Austin, An Ordinary Family highlights the difficulties for a family with a religious background when a member comes out of the closet. After years away from home Seth (Greg Wise) returns for a week with his partner William (Chad Anthony Miller) to meet the family. Each member of the family has a different reaction. For example, brother-in-law Chris (Steven Schaefer) at first finds the situation comical and slightly uncomfortable, but develops a strong bond with William.

The center of the story, however, is Seth's brother Thomas (Troy Schremmer), a Presbyterian minister. Thomas struggles to find peace in order to reconcile acceptance of Seth and William with his faith. It was his intolerance that drove Seth away, and they must come to terms with each other for Seth to consider returning home to rejoin the family permanently.

AFF 2011 Day Four: Family Values in Filmmaking

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Elizabeth Avellan with Sarah Fisch of BRANDsplanglish productions and Mariella Sonam Perez

What an exhausting but rewarding time I had at Austin Film Festival on Sunday. The Hair of the Dog Brunch always provides a wonderful opportunity to meet and mingle with filmmakers as well as cast and crew of short and feature films screening at AFF -- check back later for a photo essay from the brunch.

I met several filmmakers involved with the Texas Monthly's "Where I'm From" film contest, including I Heart SA filmmakers Robert B. Gonzales and Sarah Fisch (seen above with Elizabeth Avellan and Mariella Sonam Perez), who also writes as Chupacabrona for the Texas visual art website Glass Tire. A discussion about disparities between males and females that I've observed in online journalism and filmmaking led Sarah to introduce me to Mariella Sonam Perez (Going to Grandma's) who is one of the founders of the nonprofit organization South Texas Underground Film (STUF). STUF engages and inspires the South Texas film community by screening films without discrimination, creating new  movies, teaching the art of filmmaking to the young and old and networking with fellow filmmakers local and abroad.

AFF 2011 Interview: Ben Foster, 'Strings'

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The 18th Austin Film Festival is here. To help celebrate all the locally connected movies at this year's fest, we've reached out to a number of filmmakers to find out about their Austin and Texas-tied films screening at the fest.

Strings is a a thriller co-directed by Austinite Ben Foster and written by co-director Mark Dennis (pictured above at Tulsa Film Festival with Ben on the left). The film is about a grieving man who opts for an experimental therapy to start a new life with unexpected consequences.  I haven't seen the movie yet, but Austinite Karl Anderson, who has a significant role in the film, was very impressive during the script reading of By Way of Helena at AFF last year, so I can't wait to see his peformance on screen.  In the meantime Ben Foster graciously took the time to answer some questions about Strings, AFF and Austin. 

Slackerwood:  Describe your film for us, in a quick and dirty paragraph.

Ben Foster:  Strings is about a musician that discovers his therapist is using patients to commit vigilante crimes. He gets involved with this underground crime ring and can never return to his old life. 

AFF Review: DeadHeads

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DeadHeads still photo

The popularity of AMC's The Walking Dead series testifies to the longevity of this horror subgenre, with the success of Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland prompting more "zombedies." Both of these movies focus on the survival of unaffected individuals during a zombie apocalypse, but DeadHeads takes another road with the story of two zombies just trying to survive and fulfill unrequited love. Written, produced and directed by brothers Brett Pierce and Drew T. Pierce, DeadHeads pays homage to many of the classic zombie/undead films, especially Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, for which their father Bart Pierce handled the photographic special effects.

DeadHeads centers around Mike Kellerman (Michael McKiddy), who awakens to find himself in a strange place. After escaping, he encounters and runs in fear from flesh-eating zombies. What Mike doesn't quite get is that he is also one of the "undead," as he is able to speak and think regularly. A chance encounter with Brent (Ross Kidder) -- another zombie who can think and talk -- leads Mike to the realization that he's been dead for over three years. Even worse, as his memory returns he recalls that he had been on his way to propose to his girlfriend Ellie (Natalie Victoria). But how did he die to begin with, and why are there zombie-killing bounty hunters pursuing him?

AFF 2011, Day Three: Free Wine and Tex Mex P*rn

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Steven Belyeu & Jake Silverstein announce the "Where I'm From" Film winners

My very, very full day started early Saturday morning with the Molly Shannon taping of KLRU's Overheard with Evan Smith. She was running late, but was delightful when she arrived.  It was totally worth getting up at 7 am for. Choice bit of trivia that she told the audience before the cameras were running: when she was a waitress working in LA (before her big break on SNL), Johnny Depp would eat at her restaurant and leave extremely generous tips. She said he told her that his mom had once been a waitress.

After the taping, I hightailed it over to the Bob Bullock Museum where I left my car in the garage for the day and waded through the book festival on Congress towards the Driskill. The first Austin Film Festival item on my schedule for Saturday was the panel led by Elizabeth Hunter and Pamela Gray on "The Heroine's Journey: Writing and Selling the Female-Driven Screenplay."  The room quickly filled up; some people were even standing in the back or sitting on the floor behind the chairs.

AFF 2011 Interview: Eric Steele and Adam Donaghey, 'Uncertain, TX'

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We're deep in the heart of the 18th Austin Film Festival we've been spotlighting the Austin films, but Uncertain, TX has so many Texas filmmakers working on it, we just had to do a quick interview with director Eric Steele and producer Adam Donaghey, both based up in the DFW area. Austin's Clay Liford (Wuss, Earthling) did the cinematography. Uncertain, TX may be Steele's first feature film, but he's been active in the local film community. Steele, Donaghey, Barak Epstein and Jason Reimer are all part of Aviation Cinemas, which revived the historic Texas Theatre in 2010.

Describe your film for us, in a quick and dirty paragraph.

Eric Steele: Uncertain, TX is, in essence, the worst bed and breakfast experience imaginable. Two drifters happen upon an old bed and breakfast in a bayou town near the Louisiana/Texas border and encounter a very odd family who psychologically torments them during their stay. It’s a tragicomedy at its core and is purposefully theatrical - inspired by film versions of Shakespeare.

Tell us one thing about this film that is going to make it impossible for people to resist seeing it at the AFF?

Eric Steele: Blind B&B owners. Vast, sprawling Caddo Lake as the backdrop. Nutria. Gar. What else could you want?

Adam Donaghey: Boogie-woogie!

Review: Paranormal Activity 3

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Paranormal Activity 3

[Note: This review is based on the cut screened during Fantastic Fest, which we were told was not final, and which might feature differences from the theatrical release.]

Just two years ago, on an impossibly small budget, Oren Peli started the biggest new horror franchise of the decade. The writing of this marks the first year of my contributing to Slackerwood which began with a review of Paranormal Activity 2, a clever prequel penned by Christopher Landon. Now Landon continues to extend the franchise and expand on the mythos of Katie and Kristi with another prequel set this time in the 1980s: Paranormal Activity 3. This time, his script is directed by Catfish filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman.

This setting provides a challenge for a series of found-footage films, as the home security camera technology featured in the first two movies was not yet available back in the Eighties. (However, large, clunky B/W cctv options were available and could have been used.) To work around this, the girls' father is written as a professional videographer who just happens to have a studio full of the newest VHS camcorders he can bring home to record the strange events that have been occuring around the house. In a very clever feat of duct-tape engineering, he even fixes up one camera on top of an oscillating fan so it can cover both the living room and the kitchen. (Through a feat of magical engineering, these VHS cameras are also able to capture widescreen high-def images.)

The strength of Paranormal Activity 3 is the weakness of the series. The "events" are more aggressive, more powerful and scarier than ever, but with each movie we're moving more into the past. Thus, looking at the events in chronological order, the demon that's tormenting Katie and Kristi is apparently growing steadily weaker even as it appears to grow angrier until at the end someone has to die. While we learn a little more about the sisters and their family with each film, Landon is painting himself into a corner. If there is ever to be a Paranormal Activity 4, it can't stick to the same formula and try to extend even deeper into the past. Yet an attempt to jump the story forward in time could present some difficulty in reconciling with the events seen in previous films.

AFF 2011, Day Two: Super Woman Shoes and Free Firefly

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Just who is the girl in the picture and why is someone getting her autograph? It's Stella Otto, one of the stars of Sironia.

But first, let's start at the beginning. Today was a packed day, despite only making it to one panel. Had to decide between much needed sleep and a panel, and the sleep won out. But I did make it to one of the Pixar panels.

Kiel Murray and Mary Coleman talked about "Pixar's Story Development Process" and how the innovative animation studio approaches the development of stories and films. Unsurprisingly, no one at Pixar works in a vacuum; while they have directors on staff, every director has to come up with three separate and unique stories to pitch before the script process. Then an iterative approach is used that involves a "brain trust" feedback process as well as feedback from the entire staff of 1200 people. It was refreshing to hear that Pixar films don't get test screenings with kids (which would explain why they work so well for adults). They also use a similar development process for shorts, only anyone at Pixar can submit a story idea.

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