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aGLIFF 2011, Dispatch #1: A 'Lulu' of an Opener

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aGLIFF logoIt's a daring choice to open a film festival with a documentary about someone dying with cancer. Tuesday night aGLIFF kicked off its 24th film festival with The Lulu Sessions, an unflinching, intimate documentary about a complex woman and her equally complex friendship that defied definition.

Filmmaker S. Casper Wong was in attendance and talked about the difficulties in making the movie. Wong and Louise "Lulu" Nutter were friends when Nutter was diagnosed with cancer. Wong, who was in film school at the time, documented Nutter's experience in The Lulu Sessions, which explores their relationship over 15 years.

Like any good documentary, the story is never that simple, and through Wong's lens and discussions with Nutter, a complex, challenging, and brilliant woman easy to connect with onscreen. Nutter was a well-known cancer researcher; I had the nagging suspicion I knew something about her as the film progressed. It turns out her work was often referenced in scientific papers I helped edit when I worked at Harvard Medical School a lifetime ago.

'Slacker 2011' Premieres at the Paramount

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Slacker 2011 marquee

The movie Slacker 2011 premiered last week to a sold-out crowd at the historic Paramount Theatre. The festivities included a red carpet set out front for the many filmmakers and actors involved in the remake. The screening was set to start at 7 pm, but the introduction by two of the movie's producers, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Daniel Metz and Brian Poyser from Austin Film Society, actually began closer to 7:30.  

The duo thanked all the people who helped make the film. Austin's mayor Lee Leffingwell made a proclamation, then Richard Linklater came onstage to express his excitement to see the remake of his film Slacker, as well as introduce cast members from the original 1991 film who were in attendance.  

You can read Don's review of the film here; the audience at the Paramount loved the movie. There were a couple of spots where the film projection paused and stuttered. Still, this couldn't ruin the feeling of bonhomie in the room. There was a general burst of excitement as the last scene popped up on the screen.

Review: Slacker 2011

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Slacker 2011

To Austin indie film fans, remaking the iconic Slacker may be the Austin equivalent of remaking Citizen Kane.

Producing a new version of what is arguably the most important and cult-worshiped film in Austin cinematic history is a herculean and potentially thankless task. The danger, of course, is that the end result might be at best a ho-hum imitation of the original film or at worst a widely scorned mess of a movie that pleases no one and embarrasses everyone attached to the project. ("What Were They Thinking?" the Austin Chronicle cover would read.) Like Citizen Kane, Slacker may be best left alone.

I am happy to report, then, that Slacker 2011 is neither a ho-hum imitation of Slacker nor a mess of a movie. It is an entertaining and generally well executed update of and tribute to Richard Linklater's classic. If you like Slacker, you'll probably like Slacker 2011.

Of course, given Austin's deep pool of filmmaking talent, Slacker 2011 may have been destined for success. A co-production of the Austin Film Society and the Alamo Drafthouse, Slacker 2011 was in the capable hands of no less than 24 teams of local directors and film crews, one for each scene in the original movie. The result is essentially two dozen seamlessly connected short films in diverse styles, each an interesting new take on the original scene.

Movies This Week: Good Blank Debt Days

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We'are at that strange point in the cinematic year, a sort of dead calm before the contenders for awards get released. But that doesn't mean there isn't anything going on this week. Tuesday is a particularly tough day for Austin cineastes as there are three don't-miss events kicking off. 

I seriously want to clone myself just for Tuesday. aGLIFF starts that night, and it looks like another stellar year, with Texas representing (seriously, Cancerpants has to be the best-named film this year, and it's an Austin film).  The (free!!) Community Cinema series starts Tuesday at Austin Public Library with Peace Unveiled, an episode of the PBS series Women, War & Peace that doesn't air until October. And Austin Film Society's latest Essential Cinema series "Days and Nights of Being Wild:  Hong Kong New Wave" begins that night too with Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild (pictured above). I don't get to Essential Cinema screenings enough, and Wong Kar-Wai is such a strong director (FYI: one film in the series was produced by University of Texas graduate Tsui Hark).

Movies We've Seen:

The Debt -- Add this one to your "must-see" list, as Don says, "The Debt is a slick, smart and thought-provoking thriller with much to say about the sometimes fine line between fact and fiction" in his review.  (wide)

A Good Old Fashioned Orgy -- When I first heard about this movie, I kept confusing it with Cummings Farm, but it's just not the same, and unfortunately A Good Old Fashioned Orgy lives down to expectations. Read my review for more. (*wide)

Seven Days In Utopia -- Robert Duvall and Lucas Black previously worked together in Get Low. Now they're back the Texas-filmed Seven Days In Utopia. Debbie says, "The wholesomeness of this movie makes for a family-friendly outing..." and a whole lot more. Read her review for more. (Cinemark Tinseltown 17, Regal Gateway)

Review: A Good Old Fashioned Orgy

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Prejudice; I admit I have it. It's hard to have high expectations of a movie like A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, which does exactly what you'd expect, but that's not much.

When I first heard about A Good Old Fashioned Orgy I kept confusing it with Cummings Farm, a darkly comic 2009 AFF selection with a very similar plot and plot points; vacation home, old friends, a plan to have group sex. Cummings Farm was retitled All American Orgy for its DVD release, which included some heinously misleading cover art implying it's a sophomoric sex-romp instead of a dark relationship comedy/character study. So I readily admit I wanted to completely dismiss A Good Old Fashioned Orgy as something similar.

But the cast includes Leslie Bibb (the underrated AFF 2010 selection Miss Nobody), and Tyler Labine (Tucker & Dale vs Evil), two actors who've proven they have incredible talent. Coupled with co-filmmaker Peter Huyck having a part in Bob Byington's RSO [Registered Sex Offender], and A Good Old Fashioned Orgy has enough indie cred to make me give the film a chance. I wish it returned the favor.

A Look at Texas Film Through the 2011 TFPF Projects

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Yakona

Last week, Austin Film Society announced the 2011 Texas Filmmakers Production Fund recipients, awarded a total of $92,000 in grants, film stock and services ... plus $7K for travel grants and $12K for the Slacker 2011 production, bringing the grand total to $111,000.

I always enjoy reading about the TFPF grants because they provide a sneak peek into upcoming movies from Texas filmmakers. Austin was well represented in this year's list, but exciting productions from around the state are included. Many of these productions held online crowdfunding campaigns; I've linked to the campaign web pages and recommend taking a look, because some of the teaser videos for these films are excellent.

Here are the Austin projects that received grants, with whatever info I could find about the filmmakers and their productions:

  • $7,500 to Computer Chess -- Andrew Bujalski
    Bujalski moved to Austin a few years ago and shot his feature Beeswax here. Now he's working on Computer Chess, a feature about what happens when chess nerds meet computer programmers in 1979. The movie is currently in production in Austin -- they've been looking for extras -- and had a successful crowdfunding campaign.
  • $7,000 plus $1,000 in Alpha Cine services to Yakona -- Paul Collins, Dean Brennan and Anlo Sepulveda
    Sepulveda directed the lovely Austin-shot Otis Under Sky, which played SXSW this year, for which Collins provided the sound design. Brennan is a San Marcos filmmaker. Yakona (pictured at top) is an experimental feature-length documentary about the San Marcos River and Spring Lake ... from the point of view of the river itself.

Review: Seven Days in Utopia

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Seven Days in Utopia

One of the most inspirational writers whose work I've enjoyed reading is Harvey Penick, a golf professional and coach from Austin, Texas. Penick began his golf career as a caddy at Austin Country Club, and went on to coach at the University of Texas from 1931 to 1963. He co-authored with Texas Film Hall of Fame member Bud Shrake Harvey Penick's Little Red Book. The "must-read" book contained insightful anecdotes that applied beyond the game of golf -- life lessons on mental focus as well as achieving goals.

Like Penick, Seven Days in Utopia -- opening Friday in Austin theaters -- employs a fictional character who serves up life and spiritual lessons through golf. Based upon Dr. David Cook's book Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia, this golf-related movie centers around two individuals who appear quite different at first: Johnny Crawford (Robert Duvall), an eccentric rancher with a passion for teaching golf and truth, and young golf professional Luke Chisholm (Lucas Black), who has crashed and burned on the golf mini-circuit. Chisholm's demanding father (Joseph Lyle Taylor) second-guesses and overrides his decisions, which doesn't help either. After Chisholm's bad shots on the golf course cost him a critical game, his father turns his back and walks away, as the young Chisholm explodes in anger on national television.

Narrowly avoiding a cow on the outskirts of Utopia, Texas, Chisholm winds up stranded after driving off the road onto Crawford's ranch and rural golf course where the old rancher offers life-altering advice on golf and faith. Through exposition, Chisholm discovers Crawford had his own glory and downfall in the world of golf amongst the masters, until the demon alcohol took away his success and ended his marriage. Through experience and faith, Crawford learned that one's significance is more important than success -- a lesson he imparts upon Chisholm. 

aGLIFF 24 Preview: Majestic Steers, Queers and Cancerpants

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The Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival (aGLIFF) is 24 years old next week and is bigger than ever. This year, festival movis are screening at three different venues -- Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, Violet Crown Cinema and the Paramount Theatre -- not to mention all the parties and special events.

Looking over the schedule, I'm again having to make tough decisions about what to see. The lineup includes a number of topical documentaries as well as enticing narratives, including a selection of international titles. Even in writing this preview, it was hard to choose titles, especially since Texas is definitely represented.

aGLIFF's Centerpiece Film Mangus! should fill the Paramount quite a bit just on the plot -- a boy who longs to star in his school's production of "Jesus Christ Spectacular." But the cast is guaranteed to draw a crowd too, as it includes none other than John Waters, Heather Matarazzo and the outrageous Jennifer Coolidge. And the best part?  It was filmed here in Texas (just north of Dallas).

Review: The Debt

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The Debt

Central to the espionage thriller The Debt (opening in Austin theaters today) is the notion of physical and psychological captivity. In this relentlessly taught, gripping tale, directed by John Madden, the characters are hostages; one is physically bound by the others, but all are prisoners of their own consciences.

The story of three agents of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad assigned to capture a Nazi war criminal, The Debt opens in 1997, when retired agents Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) and Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) are dealing with tragic news about their former colleague, David Peretz (Ciarán Hinds). Peretz's fate unearths an ugly history of lies and subterfuge involving all three agents, forcing Singer and Gold to confront their pasts.

For decades, the nation of Israel has venerated Singer, Gold and Peretz for a mission they undertook in 1965, when they tracked down Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen). Known as the Surgeon of Birkenau, Vogel's ghastly medical "experiments" left thousands of concentration camp victims disfigured or dead. By the 1960s, Vogel had successfully hidden his past, working under an assumed name as a physician in East Berlin. He evaded justice until Singer, Gold and Peretz finally captured him in a complex operation involving false identities, kidnapping and great personal risk.

Two Austin Shorts Are Added to Fantastic Fest Lineup

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AJ Bowen of No Way Out

As the largest genre festival in the U.S. featuring horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action, and "fantastic" movies, Fantastic Fest recently announced the 2011 short film lineup, with 50 shorts from across the world. The stellar programming showcases the best of hundreds of submissions from many countries, including Australia, Norway, Germany, Estonia, Canada, Spain and the U.K. This year's slate of short films also includes 15 from the United States, two of which were shot right here in Austin, Texas.

So far, Austin is represented at Fantastic Fest this year by No Way Out and Family Unit, films that feature Fantastic Fest veterans, including filmmakers, actors and writers. Find out after the jump why the Austin Fire Department paid an unexpected visit to one film's set. 

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