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AFF Review: Searching for Sonny

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Searching for Sonny

I was discussing Austin Film Festival with a friend yesterday and surprised to learn he had never heard of BriTANick, the wildly hilarious duo Brian McElhaney and Nick Kocher. The two have been writing, acting and producing comedic short films online for several years and last year brought Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses (which you can and should watch online) to SXSW. They have begun to appear in TV and feature film roles, including the upcoming Joss Whedon surprise Much Ado About Nothing. They came to AFF this year with the outstanding Searching For Sonny, written and directed by Ft. Worth native Andrew Disney.

Jason Dohring stars as Elliot Knight, an unsuccessful 28-year-old pizza delivery driver. Depressed by his lack of accomplishments, Elliot's neuroses include envy of Jesus Christ for being wildly successful before the age of 30.

Jason receives a surprise invitation to his 10-year class reunion from his estranged best friend, Sonny (Masi Oka). As soon as he arrives at the reunion, he meets up with twin brother Calvin (Nick Kocher) and classmate Gary (Brian McElhaney). Together, the three of them set out to find Sonny, following clues left on their postcard invitations, and uncover a larger scheme involving their former high-school principal.

In their online videos, Kocher and McElhaney's double act usually requires them to trade the straight man role back and forth. Dohring's deadpan lead allows them both to ham it up here, making Searching for Sonny wildly hilarious.

Narrated by Clarke Peters, Searching for Sonny combines the non sequitur style of a BriTANick comedy with a film noir. The combination results in something akin to Bryan Fuller's work in Pushing Daisies, only less romantic and cute. Kinky and subversive, dark and outrageous, Searching for Sonny is the funniest movie I've seen all year. I'm eager to see more work from Andrew Disney.

Review: Anonymous

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Anonymous

"To be or not to be?" might be regarded as one of the greatest questions ever asked. But the topic raised on whether or not William Shakespeare actually wrote the words credited to him might be a better question, according to the film Anonymous. Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) takes a break from showcasing all of the ways our world could come to an end by directing a movie that offers up a theory that could very well shatter the world of many an aspiring writer and/or playwright. Anonymous is a very well acted film, and if you're a fan of Shakespeare, it does put the viewer in the shoes of those who first witnessed plays written by ... well, I suppose whomever they might have been written by.

Anonymous opens in the present day, on a Broadway show where a lone man stands onstage and ponders the question of whether  Shakespeare wrote the words attributed to him. He offers evidence such as the lack of actual historical manuscripts as proof that the question is a legitimate one.

We're then transported to the time in which we know Shakespeare lives. This is a time in which a play that might offer up a sarcastic word about the royalty of the country or others who may be in charge could be considered seditious, and the playwrights would be arrested on sight. On one occasion, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) witnesses a rather impressive play and he bails out the writer but offers a condition -- he will allow this writer to put his name on his manuscripts so someone will get to witness them. As it turns out, the plays are amazing, and jumping on an opportunity, an illiterate actor named William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) steps in to accept credit from an adoring crowd.

Review: Puss in Boots

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Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots comes to us during a fall film season with a paucity of releases for children. It's a clever if not brilliant work from Dreamworks Animation and a spinoff/prequel to the title character's entry in the Shrek series. Fortunately, there is no mention of Shrek, and the movie works very well alone without the need for prior knowledge of that world.

Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek frequently work together, and this is their fifth collaboration (after Desperado, Frida, Spy Kids 3-D and Once Upon a Time in Mexico). They are joined by Billy Bob Thornton (Jack), Amy Sedaris (Jill), and Zach Galifianakis (Humpty Dumpty). Galifianakis is either brilliantly cast or terribly wasted. Personally, his characters always seem to grate on my nerves, but he delivers some of the best one-liners in Puss in Boots. As a family film, though, it's a very light, vanilla creme flavor of humor compared to The Hangover series.

Part origin story, part adventure-heist, Puss in Boots earns points for encompassing an actual story rather than simply throwing pop culture references at the audience, the modus operandus of Shrek. Sadly, a predictable plot is so transparent it doesn't need the incessant telegraphing of every potential surprise move. This is likely more a problem for those who have already seen Puss in the Shrek films. His aresenal is exhausted, and he has no new tricks. You know at some point he'll pull out the big kitty sad eyes, but it's been done before.

As with Shrek, Puss's best moments are when he has a strong character to play against, and those moments here are with Hayek's Kitty Softpaws. Had Puss in Boots been more about a cat-and-mouse game between them and less about Humpty Dumpty, it would have been more interesting.

Besides the Banderas-Hayek chemistry, the brightest spot in the movie was an engaging soundtrack performed by Mexican/gypsy/folk duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. Unfortunately, the soundtrack does not yet appear to be available on iTunes or Amazon.

Movies This Week: Anonymous Call in Shelter Boots

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It's a strong week for free films in Austin. The Sunset Supper Cinema at the Whole Foods flagship on Lamar is showing The Hunger (with a special Halloween treat). Most of the programming for this series has been decidedly family oriented; The Hunger is not. The Austin Pets Alive Fall Petsival on Sunday includes a special (and free) Rolling Roadshow screening of Cats & Dogs. Puppies and kittens of all shapes and sizes will be on hand for adoption.

The APL/KLRU Community Cinema series at the APL Windsor Park Branch is still going strong. This series pairs socially relevant docs and community groups for post-screening discussions. On Tuesday they're showing We Still Live Here (Âs Nutayuneân), directed by Anne Makepeace.  It's one of the free APL screening programs.  

Lastly, Cine Las Americas is showing Pedro Páramo at the MACC on Wednesday as part of its Literature in Mexican Cinema series.  

Movies We've Seen:

Margin Call -- Another start to awards season, another take on the financial crisis. This time it focuses on the key people in a 24-hour period at the start of the crisis. Rod saw it and says, "Greed, vanity, pride, gluttony and vanity. To some these are known as deadly sins. To Wall Street of 2008, these were business as usual. Margin Call demonstrates what happens when payment for these sins comes due." Read his review for more.  (Violet Crown)

Take Shelter (pictured above) -- Austinite Jeff Nichols's tale of a man haunted by visions of apolocalyptic storms is destined to top many "best" lists, but don't see it for the hype. See it for the incredible performances, direction, cinematography, sound design, editing ... Need I go on? See it now, before you know more about it. Seriously. Read my review for more. Austin Film Society members take note: If you see the movie at Violet Crown, $2 of your ticket cost goes to the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund. (Alamo Lamar, Arbor, Violet Crown)

Review: Margin Call

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Margin CallIn the first decade of this century, rocket scientists who ruled the back rooms of Wall Street discovered something they touted as a real Philosopher's Stone. Through financial alchemy, they created Frankenstein's monster. This monster was named Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO). CDO's were created using something known as The Formula. The Formula theorized that packages of mortgages could be mashed together and sliced apart into "good" parts and "bad" parts. The problem is that The Formula relied on a base set of assumptions that history shows were faulty to the core.

It is not possible to turn lead into gold and a sow's ear will always be a sow's ear no matter how much you want it to be a silk purse. Margin Call illustrates what happens when a financial institution realizes that the bag of gold they hold is in reality a bag of lead.

Margin Call opens with a scene that could have been straight taken from Up in the Air. Employees are called into managers' offices where HR awaits with bad news that has been all too common these days. One of the employees being "let go" at this financial institution is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a manager in the risk management department. As Dale is leaving, he hands Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) a USB drive with some of his latest work. He implores Peter to continue this work instructing him to be careful with it. Peter Sullivan burns the midnight oil completing Dale's work.

It's at this point we know the company is in deep Bandini (extra credit if you know what that means). Sullivan immediately raises the red flag and calls in his manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who brings in the upper management of the company, one by one, to deal with this crisis.

AFF Review: Austin High

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Austin High

Sometimes it can be a gift and a curse being a movie geek living in this great town of Austin, Texas. We do things our own way, we're weird, and we embrace that fact with open arms while the red counties look in cautiously at our liberal nature. We make films here. Sometimes they're awesome and sometimes they're not. Usually though, they fall in between. Austin High is one of those in-between films, and it's the type of movie most people in Austin will love, but others who don't "get it" won't really grasp and will therefore shun the film.

Austin High is a film that could be great. It's got funny moments, a good story, effortlessly good performances ... but as a film overall, it might be a little too Austin.

Samuel Wilson (Michael S. Wilson) is the principal of the high school he attended while growing up in here in Austin, Lady Bird High. Although he's grown up to become an adult who helps mold the minds of the future's youths, he still likes to get high with his buddies. Yeah, they're the same buddies he got high with in high school and they still meet up in the same spot to toke up in the morning.

Review: Take Shelter

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What's the bigger nightmare: Extreme violence, or an ambiguous but growing sense of threat to all your hold dear? Austin's Jeff Nichols proves it's the latter in Take Shelter, as a family man becomes increasingly obsessed with visions of storms, putting all he holds dear at risk as he tries to keep them safe.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is an upstanding guy with a devoted wife Samantha, an adorable daughter Hannah, a responsible job and a comfortable home. Life isn't perfect, but they all happily weather the storms of life until Curtis's nightmares start interfering with waking life. The more Curtis tries to protect his family and regain a sense of security, the faster it erodes. 

There is nothing to substantiate Curtis' fears, which is both the foundation and the power of Nichols's script. Nichols (Shotgun Stories) deliberately doesn't distinguish reality and nightmare; there is no discernible change in film stock and nothing to indicate which is which. As the film progresses, it's harder for the audience to distinguish between the two, increasing the tension despite the movie's slow and steady pace. But instead of being distracting, it makes it easier for the audience to relate to Curtis' plight. Even the CGI is minimal, and only enough to enhance the story. The overall effect is nearly exhausting as the audience gets caught up in Curtis' plight.

AFF Photo Essay: 'The Nice Guys' Drop Trou, Delight Audience

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There was a lot going on at Austin Film Festival on Sunday, and unless you could clone yourself, you may have missed it. Thomas Jane dropping trou for The Nice Guys script reading for one.  (More photos after the jump.)

Photo Essay: 'Young Adult' Surprises Alamo Audiences

Patton Oswalt & Jason Reitman

The Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar played host this week to a "secret screening with special guests." The guests turned out to be filmmaker Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) and actor/comedian Patton Oswalt.

SXSW Announces First Film Panels for 2012

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SXSW has announced its first round of confirmed sessions today for the 2012 Film Conference in March. SXSW Film Conference and Festival Producer Janet Pierson said, "We’re particularly thrilled with how well our PanelPicker interface harnesses the intelligence and passions of our creative community to help define the most interesting and relevant topics of the day."

Thousands of proposals were submitted for the SXSW film conference panels through the PanelPicker tool, which allowed anyone with an internet connection to submit a proposal, then let the public vote on them this summer. Nearly 40 sessions were announced today on a wide range of topics near and dear to filmmakers' hearts, including several "convergence" titles that are open to all Film, Interactive, Gold and Platinum badgeholders.

The confirmed Film sessions (panels and otherwise) are  listed after the jump.

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