SXSW Review: Kingdom of Shadows

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Kingdom of Shadows

The most haunting images in the drug war documentary Kingdom of Shadows are at the film's end. Family members of the "disappeared" -- those who have vanished amid the drug-related violence in Mexico -- stare silently into the camera, the pained but stoic looks on their faces reminding us of the drug war's human toll.

Many documentaries have chronicled the drug war in the U.S. and Mexico, but few have humanized it as poignantly as Kingdom of Shadows. While the film explains some of the politics and history of the endless battle against the drug cartels, it also puts an unforgettable face on the war's tragic effects by focusing on three people caught up in it.

The three defy stereotypes. Sister Consuelo Morales may be a petite nun in her sixties, but she's fierce and fearless in her quest to help families whose loved ones have disappeared. Based in Monterrey -- a Mexican city battered by the cartels -- and founder of the activist group Citizens in Support of Human Rights, she is unafraid to stand toe-to-toe with government officials, pressuring them to find the missing and help the families find justice.

Box-Office Alternatives: I Am Sam

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This week sees the release of The Gunman, an actioner starring Sean Penn as a sniper on the run for his life after the assassination job he was hired for goes awry. The film will surely draw in the parents of teens seeking out Insurgent, thereby affording The Gunman a decent performance at the box office.

In looking back through Penn's filmography before writing this, it became evident to me that the incredibly fearless actor has only anchored a number of films throughout his many years in the movies. Moreover, his selectivity toward leading projects and the diversity of his choices make him one of the most chameleon-like actors in film.

Among all of Penn's leading turns, my favorite still remains his Oscar-nominated work in the drama I Am Sam (2001). Penn spent many hours studying the developmentally challenged (to compelling and magical effect) in order to play Sam Dawson, a man with the mind of a child who finds his young daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) taken from him after he is declared an unfit parent due to his disability. Through a series of events, Sam meets a high-powered attorney Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer) who agrees to help Sam prove that, regardless of his limitations, he does indeed have the ability to be the father Lucy deserves.

Movies This Week: March 20-26, 2015

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Spring 

Even if you've spent the last week in line for SXSW movies all across town, I'm here to report that there's no rest for the wicked. There are a lot of incredible screenings ahead that you won't want to miss, so buck up! First up, the Violet Crown Cinema has White Haired Witch on deck for Asian Movie Madness on Tuesday night. The movie is sponsored by Well Go USA and Iron Dragon TV and you can grab tickets here

Jean Cocteau's 1946 adaptation of Beauty And The Beast screens on Tuesday up at the Austin Film Society Screening Room (1901 E. 51st Street) for Avant Cinema. Richard Linklater returns with the first selection in the "Jewels In The Wasteland II" series, which will find him presenting Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise in 35mm on Wednesday at the Marchesa. You can buy a series pass here to get you into the first 5 films of the series and save some cash if you're going to make it out to each film. On Thursday night, the recent "Children Of Abraham/Ibrahim 9" series wraps up at the Marchesa with 2011's Free Men

The Drafthouse is serving up all-you-can-eat pizza parties for the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie this weekend. It's at Alamo Lakeline on Saturday at noon and then at Alamo Slaughter Lane on Sunday at noon. Afternoon Tea also happens at Alamo Slaughter on Saturday afternoon with Joe Wright's Atonement. There's another benefit screening of The Warriors at Slaughter on Tuesday to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society via the Drafthouse's own MS-150 bike team, and the Drafthouse will also be hosting a "Backwards Feast" for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on Wednesday.  

SXSW Review: They Will Have to Kill Us First

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Khaira Arby in They Will Have to Kill Us First

When a film starts with a history lesson told music video-style through French-language rap, you know you're watching something unique.  The impeccable sound design is the first thing I noticed about They Will Have to Kill Us First; clear gun pops accompany news reports and this introductory music. The opening sequence explains recent events in Mali that led to the split of the country and the sharia law ruling the northern section. Residents of Timbuktu and Goa became refugees in their own country as they left the violent unrest of the north to live in Bamako... or surrounding border countries such as Burkina Faso.

Among those forced to leave were many musicians, as music was banned in the north in 2012.  How difficult it is to imagine a day without music -- months without it must have felt a lifetime. As famous singer Khaira Arby puts it, "Music is like oxygen for human beings." When we first see her in 2012, she seems a dimmed version of her self, distraught over the fate of her country. Filmmaker Johanna Schwartz also introduces us to the newly formed band Songhoy Blues, party musician Moussa and refugee singer Disco.

SXSW Review: KRISHA

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Krisha

KRISHA is why we go to film festivals.

In a world full of great films that are very much alike -- even indie movies at festivals -- KRISHA rises above the been-there-seen-that noise with a truly unique style and vision. Trey Edward Shults' odd but arresting drama is a thoroughly original twist on a well-worn genre, the family holiday film.

KRISHA rose far enough above the noise at this year's SXSW Film Festival to take home the Narrative Feature Competition Grand Jury Award. Those who had the foresight and good sense to attend the film's world premiere at SXSW (which did not sell out, but should have) know it certainly deserves the honor.

Based on Shults' short film of the same title, which won the Narrative Short Special Jury Award at SXSW 2014, KRISHA is a story many of us know too well. The film's titular character arrives at a family Thanksgiving gathering after an absence of more than 10 years. Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is a gloriously dysfunctional middle-aged woman who barely keeps it together (and frequently doesn't) while battling various inner demons.

SXSW Review: Manson Family Vacation

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The Duplass brothers break the mold as far as family filmmaker teams go. They seem to have a knack for stories that are zany, yet peppered with flecks of true humanity. Even as producers, no two of their projects seem to be like one another. It therefore was no surprise (to me, at least) that they were part of the team behind writer/director J. Davis's premiere narrative feature film, Manson Family Vacation.

Jay Duplass takes the acting lead in this film as Nick, an anally neurotic lawyer who lives a structured life with his wife and son. When his off-the-wall adopted brother Conrad (Linas Phillips) passes through town on his way to a mysterious new job, Nick gives in to Conrad's plea of spending some quality time together. But Conrad's idea of brotherly bonding isn't quite normal: he wants to visit all of the landmarks and sites of the Charles Manson murders.

Driven by Conrad's urgent desire to start his new job with a group of "environmental activists" in the desert, the two find themselves thrown into a journey that forces them to acknowledge their estranged childhood. When Conrad's connection to Manson becomes deeper than expected, it challenges Nick to finally be the brother Conrad always sought in him, causing the story to take an unpredictable turn. (Like I said: zany with flecks of humanity.)

SXSW Review: Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove

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Sir Doug

You just can't live in Texas/If you don't have a lot of soul
-- Doug Sahm, "At the Crossroads"

Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove is a groove all right, and a great tribute to one of Texas' greatest musicians.

Doug Sahm gave us "She's About a Mover" and "Mendocino" -- along with a zillion other songs -- and was an influential songwriter and performer who reinvented himself musically many times. He played in country bands as a child, cranked out Sixties pop songs with the Sir Douglas Quintet, turned psychedelic in San Francisco, helped put Austin's cosmic cowboys on the map in the Seventies, and ultimately returned to his San Antonio Tex-Mex roots with the Texas Tornadoes in the Nineties. Sahm wasn't just able to play any form of indigenous Texas music; he was Texas music.

Sir Doug celebrates all of Sahm's musical incarnations. Kicking off with a killer 1976 Austin City Limits performance of "She's About a Mover," the documentary then takes us back to Sahm's days as a child prodigy playing steel guitar in San Antonio clubs. (Known as Little Doug Sahm, he played with Hank Williams and other greats before he was a teenager.)

SXSW Review: Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas

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Speed of Light

Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas, a collection of six short films made in the Austin area in the early Eighties, is a great flashback to the early days of Austin's film scene.

A great flashback -- but not necessarily a collection of great films. They're intriguing cinematic artifacts made by filmmakers with obvious talent, but most of them are crudely made and may appeal only to those who share the filmmakers' punk/new wave sensibilities.

Demme presented the movies in a program at the Collective of Living Cinema in New York City in October 1981 after seeing them on a previous visit to Austin. The program earned a lot of great press -- but despite critical success and Demme's enthusiastic cheerleading, the films suffered the fate of most short films, being mostly forgotten outside a cult following of devoted fans and film history buffs.

But thanks to SXSW co-founder Louis Black (who was involved with several of the films), the surviving filmmakers and a team of film restorers, the six films in Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas are back, lovingly restored, headed for the film-festival circuit and soon to be released on home video from The University of Texas Press.

SXSW 2015: Elizabeth's Focus on Female Filmmakers, Documentary Edition

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Alex Sichel directing A WOMAN LIKE ME

I'm so satisfied with my idea to limit my SXSW Film schedule to movies made by female filmmakers that I'm wondering if I should make it a regular festival practice. I've seen some groundbreaking work that I might have missed otherwise. Now, all my picks haven't been winners, but most of them have either been astonishing, moved me to tears, or both.

The documentaries in this year's selections have exceptionally strong game, from the more traditional methods of Frame by Frame and They Will Have to Kill Us First to the genre-defying A Woman Like Me. These ladies are creating complicated works, and I am here for it.

On Saturday afternoon I attended the world premiere of Frame by Frame, a documentary about four photojournalists in Afghanistan.  The film's subjects, three men and a woman, have confronted various setbacks -- including the Taliban government, which once banned photography of any type. Co-directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli show these photographers at work and in tense moments. 

Austin at SXSW 2015: Lizzie Velasquez Shows 'A Brave Heart'

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Lizzie Velasquez

Elizabeth "Lizzie" Velasquez is 25 years old and weighs 58 pounds. Velasquez, a native Austin and Texas State University alumna, was born with a rare, unnamed syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight. As a child, she was bullied in school for her appearance and later, as a teenager, was bullied online where she found a YouTube video that called her "The World's Ugliest Woman."

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, which premiered at SXSW this week, shows Velasquez's physical and emotional journey from bullying victim to anti-bullying activist. The documentary paints a portrait of Velasquez using stories from friends and family and leading up to her 2013 multi-million-viewed TEDxAustin talk. She garnered acclaim from this motivational talk and was invited to speak about her experiences on television shows such as The View, and has been interviewed by the Associated Press, among other publications. These experiences prompted her to lobby on Capitol Hill for the first federal anti-bullying bill.

Velasquez was unable to answer questions by phone or in person because of health issues but did so via email instead.

Slackerwood: When and how were you approached with the idea for the documentary?

Lizzie Velasquez: Sara Bordo, the director and producer of my film, called me in February of 2014 after my TEDxAustinWomen talk went viral. Sara, who also directed the TEDx event, told me she had a wild idea to do a documentary with me to help put a spotlight on my story as well as my anti-bullying efforts.

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