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Review: The Beaver

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Despite the pun-magnet title, The Beaver is an unexpectedly dramatic film that succeeds in part because of -- and at times despite of -- its star.

When Walter Black (Mel Gibson) has a midlife crisis, he implodes more spectacularly than the average person. But Walter isn't an average person; he has a beautiful house, a beautiful wife Meredith (Jodie Foster), two children (Anton Yelchin, Riley Thomas Stewart) and a big family business that many would envy. Yet he cannot manage any of it and it slips away out of his unclenched grasp.

Instead of finding his inner child when he finally rallies, Walter creates the distance he desperately needs as well as the momentum to start moving forward through an alter-ego in the form of a old beaver hand puppet. Those around him seem to control their misgivings to different degrees, with his teenage son (Yelchin) clearly resenting it, his wife somewhat appalled but desperate to get her husband back, and the younger son who embraces it with the resiliency most kids show.

Review: Meek's Cutoff

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Meek's Cutoff

The Oregon most of us picture -- a place of lush forests and rugged coastline -- is not the Oregon of Meek's Cutoff. The film's setting is the scrubby and inhospitable desert in the state's southeast corner, which has more in common with neighboring Nevada than with green and rainy Portland.

But the unexpectedly arid and empty Oregonian vistas in Meek's Cutoff are totally appropriate, for the movie itself -- with its glacial pacing and thoroughly indie sensibilities -- is not what most moviegoers expect in a period Western. The latest movie from Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) undoubtedly will try the patience of anyone looking for traditional horse opera shoot-'em-up action and moral clarity  ... or, for that matter, anyone seeking an actual plot. But in its own rarely seen universe -- the lonely universe of meditative, character-driven Westerns -- Meek's Cutoff is greatly provocative and rewarding.

Meek's Cutoff is morally complex but structurally simple, following a small group of weary settlers crossing Oregon in 1843. From the film's onset, it's apparent that the group is hopelessly lost. Thanks to their guide, the ill-tempered and unlikeable Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), they've taken an unmapped detour from the usual settlers' route. After travelling for several days with no idea how to reach their destination (an ambiguous locale somewhere west of wherever they are), their most immediate problem is their rapidly dwindling water supply.

Los Angeles Film Festival Loves Austin (and John Merriman)

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The Los Angeles Film Festival has a heavy dose of Austin in its lineup this year. Not only that, but I've counted at least three films involving local actor John Merriman (pictured above with Kerri Lendo at AFF 2010). Is there some sort of conspiracy afoot? Is he becoming the Austin version of Dick Miller? Along with the films playing at LAFF, I've been on set visits this year for two upcoming movies with Merriman in them, and he was in one of the SXSW bumpers this year. I think someone needs to look into this before something tragic -- or very funny -- happens.

Merriman aside, here are the Austin-connected features and shorts popping up all over LAFF in June:

  • In the narrative competition, the latest feature from Mike Akel (Chalk), An Ordinary Family, is premiering. The locally shot movie is set at a family reunion where one man shows up with his new boyfriend. The cast includes Chalk cast members Troy and Janelle Schremmer, The Happy Poet filmmaker/actor Paul Gordon and yes, Mr. Merriman.
  • Akel's competition in this category includes a film from Steve Collins, the former Austinite whose previous feature, Gretchen, won him the LAFF Target Filmmaker Award in 2006. You Hurt My Feelings, also havings its world premiere at LAFF, is about a man who becomes a nanny to show his ex-girlfriend that he would make a good father. The leads are three actors who starred in Gretchen -- Courtney Davis, Macon Blair and ... John Merriman. You Hurt My Feelings is produced by Anish Savjani, who produced Gretchen as well as a number of other Austin films.

Paramount Update: P.S. Party and Summer Film Schedule

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projectorLast Thursday, the Paramount Theatre threw a party to celebrate the theater's upcoming summer film series -- although the series schedule wasn't announced at the time. This will be the Paramount's 36th summer movie series.

Anyone who RSVP'd online for "P.S. -- A Paramount/Stateside Affair" received a nifty badge at sign-in (at the newly re-opened State Theatre) with discount offers on the back. I imagine I'll use my ticket discount for more than a few of the upcoming summer classics at the downtown theater.

Drinks poured freely, a DJ spun music from the mezzanine of the Paramount, and the Paramount's projector room was open for tours ... as you can see from the photo on the right. Hundreds of people turned out for the party, which hopefully will become an annual event.

Below are some of my photos from the shindig, and more photos of the event can be found on the Paramount's Facebook page.

On Monday, P.S. party attendees received a special preview -- a link to a PDF of the Paramount summer film schedule.

There's a little something for everyone this summer at the Paramount. Which movies on the schedule are you planning to see?

2011 Guide to Austin Summer Film Camps

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AFS Summer Camp

Summer is almost officially here, and there's still time to register for kids' summertime filmmaking camps and workshops in Austin. Some classes are full already, but children and teens still have plenty of camps and sessions to choose from, so sign up soon.

These affordable camps and workshops provide unique experiences for local youth in various aspects of filmmaking -- acting, screenwriting, editing and animation -- see some of the creative and funny claymation films after the jump. At the end of many of these camps, friends and family are invited to attend a screening of the movie(s) that campers helped make, or campers can bring home a DVD to hold their own private screening party.

Here's a list of all the summer movie-related camps and classes in the Austin area that we could find. Some of the descriptions are pretty much verbatim from press releases or websites. In addition to the kids-only offerings, there are opportunities for adults as well this summer -- you'll find a couple of options for grownups at the end of the list.

A Tour of Austin Filmmaking Via 'Slacker 2011'

Slacker 2011Of all the movies undergoing remakes, sequels, "reboots" and so forth, the last one I ever expected to get such treatment was the 1991 Richard Linklater film Slacker. But here we are, two decades after the movie premiered in Austin, and Austin Film Society and Alamo Drafthouse have teamed up to organize a remake ... sort of. Surprisingly, I'm not making the usual squinchy face of distaste that I do when I hear about remakes, which may have to do with the talent involved.

Slacker 2011 is not just a potential film, it's a project to raise money for the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund (TFPF). Nearly two dozen local (or formerly local) filmmakers have signed up to re-create scenes from Slacker -- perhaps showing us how much Austin has changed in the last 20 years. Each filmmaker will re-shoot a scene in its original location, and the scenes will be edited together for Slacker 2011. The film will premiere on August 31 ... obviously not at the same theater where Slacker premiered, though (the now-defunct Dobie).

How does fundraising tie into this? You can donate money to the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund and different levels give you different premiums, like the fundraising campaigns for indie films through Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. $50 gets you a ticket to the Slacker 2011 premiere and a thank-you on the AFS website; other levels offer autographed DVDs of both films, the chance to be an extra or have a speaking role in one of the Slacker 2011 scenes, and for $25K, Executive Producer credit.

The list of filmmakers is impressive if you know something about the Austin film community. However, I think it's unfair to make that assumption, or to leave you with nothing but a handful of IMDb links. Therefore, the bulleted list below provides a little more info about who these filmmaker are, what they've worked on, and if they themselves have benefitted from the TFPF program. It's a nice little tour of local filmmaking with some fascinating interconnections. I know more about some filmmakers than others, so if I've missed something notable, let me know in the comments.

Movies This Week: Five Better Certified Assassins

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Since the Dobie closed last year, there's been a void in town, but now with the Violet Crown open, Austin has a new dedicated arthouse cinema. No more trips up north for me. And for those of you relying on mass transit, it's conveniently downtown in the Second Street district (and on one of the most frequently running routes, the #3).

Movies We've Seen:

13 Assassins -- Takashi Miike's popular tale of a group of samurai warriors on a suicide mission to kill an evil lord has played both Fantastic Fest and SXSW. That pretty much speaks for itself. Read Jette's review from Fantastic Fest. (Ritz)

Other Movies Opening in Austin:

Certified Copy (pictured above)  -- Juliette Binoche stars in this chance encounter between a gallery owner and a writer who end up touring the Tuscan countryside, and are continually mistaken for a married couple. Binoche's performance earned her a Best Actress prize at Cannes. (Violet Crown)

'¿Tacos or Tacos?' Tours Central Texas

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Tacos or Tacos?Food trucks and trailers are increasingly popular in Austin these days, serving everything from traditional tacos to kimchi fries to frozen chocolate-dipped bananas. Local filmmaker Robert Lemon, who is also a PhD student in geography at The University of Texas, compares and contrasts two very different mobile food vendors in the short documentary ¿Tacos or Tacos?, which played Cine Las Americas this week and will screen at the Hill Country Film Festival tomorrow.

The documentary focuses on Mighty Cone on South Congress and Tortas El Guero on Cameron Road. One serves gourmet meats and snacks in paper snow-cones, parked in a trendy lot devoted to food trailers; the other serves  Mexico City-style tortas and tacos from a converted school bus next to a car wash. Lemon shows up on camera discussing the Austin mobile food culture and trying some of the wares from the two vendors. In addition, he interviews not only the managers/owners of the trailers but also some of the patrons.

One of the points the documentary makes is that the two different trucks reflect the culture of their surrounding community, and the way that food is important to people, especially people far from their hometown. The interviews and discussions around Tortas El Guero are especially good.

Review: Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

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Qi Shu and Donnie Yen of Legend of the Fist

Fantastic Fest 2010 selection Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Jing wu feng yun: Chen Zhen) is back in Austin on Friday night at Alamo Drafthouse Village. The movie brings together history with amazing action sequences and stunning sets of Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the First World War to re-invent the tale of a cultural hero, played by action star Donnie Yen (Ip Man). Director Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) attempts to serve up more than the usual martial arts action porn with a complex storyline featuring nationalism, brotherhood, espionage, romance and superheroes.

Yen portrays the legendary Chen Zhen, a character created by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury and later portrayed by Jet Li in Gordon Chan's acclaimed 1994 remake Fist of Legend. Yen himself has played the character in a 1995 TV series. For Legend of the Fist, Yen teamed with writer/producer Gordon Chan and director Lau to continue the story of Chen Zhen as a World War I veteran, resistance fighter and masked superhero.

Zhen's heroism precedes the war, when as a member of the Jing Wu Athletic Association he defeated a formidable Japanese opponent at the Hongkou Dojo. In France in 1917, he and his fellow laborers carry ammunition to French soldiers in trenches, and during a climactic retreat, Zhen rescues both his fellow patriots and French soldiers as well. When a comrade is killed, he assumes his identity in order to gain anonymity.

Cine Las Americas Jury Award Winners Screen Tonight

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Cine Las AmericasThe Cine Las Americas International Film Festival, which has been going on all week, has announced its jury award winners and scheduled them for encore screenings tonight at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. If you don't have a festival pass, you can buy tickets at the Alamo box office.

Portraits in a Sea of Lies (Retratos en un mar de mentiras) won the Best Narrative Feature award and will be shown at 6 pm. The Colombian movie is about a pair of cousins who travel to their hometown to try to recover land taken from them when younger. The Best Narrative Short, Lupano Leyva, will screen beforehand.

The Best Documentary Feature award went to Defiant Brasilia (Avenida Brasilia Formosa), which plays at 3 pm. The "experimental documentary" from Brazil is about a group of people moved to a fictional street and how they interact together. The Best Documentary Short, If We Stay Alive (Si seguimos vivos), will screen beforehand.

Cine Las Americas wraps up tonight with closing-night film The Life of Fish (La vida de los peces), at 9:45 pm at Alamo on Lamar, followed by an after-party at Club DeVille.

For more Cine Las Americas coverage, check out Austin Vida, which includes an interview with Go For It! filmmaker Carmen Marron and reviews of fest selections Habla Texas and Miss Tacuarembo. In addition, True View Reviews has set up a blog just for their Cine Las Americas reviews.

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