Texas Film Fests
Imagine cycling more than 6,000 miles cross-country, mending dozens of popped tires, camping out in thunderstorms, coping with unexpected injuries ... and documenting it with video cameras. Filmmaker Chandler Wild takes on the challenge in the documentary Mount Lawrence, and includes the audience in his experience in an engaging, almost intimate way. The film recently won the Best Documentary award at the Hill Country Film Festival.
Wild, a former Texan living in Brooklyn, decides to embark on this adventure to honor the memory of his dad, who loved taking his family on adventurous camping and other outdoor trips ... and eventually committed suicide. He plans to cycle from New York City through California and up to Alaska, and he has to do it within a fairly limited timeframe so the weather will be okay for travelling by the time he gets to Canada. His goal is to reach Homer, Alaska and climb an as-yet-unnamed mountain that he'll hopefully be able to officially name after his father (thus the title).
From Brooklyn, Wild starts the bicycle trek with his friend Connor Lynch, who has never tried cycling of any real distance, or outdoor living, or any of this kind of thing. While it's a rough start for Lynch, having him accompany Wild is a great entryway for the audience to empathize with the situation. Eventually they hit a rhythm as they travel west and deal with all kinds of unpredictable difficulties, as well as some truly lovely moments on the road and in places like Detroit and Yellowstone Park.
Mount Lawrence follows the obvious structure of the lengthy road trip, but Wild adds more of a personal note by framing his voiceover narration as a letter to his dad. It sounds a little stiff and forced at first, but as the documentary really gets rolling and we get to know him better, his inflections sound more natural. Music from The Bones of J.R. Bones complements the odyssey very well.
For a movie shot with GoPro cameras mounted crazily on bikes and other rough-on-the-road shooting, Mount Lawrence looks especially good on a big screen, but will carry over well to home video. The opening credits sequence, designed to look like a family vacation slideshow, is a real visual highlight. At this time, the film is touring the film-fest circuit and no distribution deals or plans have been announced ... but it's hard to imagine a documentary about an adventure of such magnitude won't make it at least to online streaming outlets soon.
Texas connections: Filmmaker Chandler Wild grew up in the Houston, Texas area.
Charming indie film The Origins of Wit and Humor, which screened earlier this month at the Hill Country Film Festival, appears at first to be a romantic comedy, but ultimately leans heavily on the comedy, as hinted in the title. In fact, you could argue that this movie is a romantic comedy in which humor portrays the femme fatale the protagonist pursues -- the storyline chronicles the repercussions of his entanglements with this demanding love interest.
Les (Joe Hursley) is a comedy writer who's completely devastated when seemingly out of nowhere, his longtime girlfriend moves out. He can't write, he can't function, he has no idea how to approach women, despite encouragement from his best friend Pops (Steve Lemme). On a whim, Les sends off a mail-order form from the back of an old book (with the same title as the film) and receives a "potion" that will allegedly make him irresistably funny to all women. And the big problem is that unlike "X-ray specs" and the Charles Atlas program, the potion turns out to work.
The Origins of Wit and Humor has a tendency to favor broad comedy over character and plot consistency, when given the choice, with occasional misfires. For example, the scene where Les seeks out the source of the potion he has taken is just silly and feels forced. On the other hand, a sequence that pays tribute to silent movies didn't have much tie-in to the plot but it's so funny, it hardly matters.
Hursley has a talent for hilariously appropriate facial expressions that don't cross over into shameless mugging -- he reminded me a little of Hugh Laurie back in the Bernie Wooster years. He and Lemme together make just about any situation more humorous. The female characters don't get much to do in the movie apart from Grace McPhillips as Pops' wife, who is immune to Les's charms and also pretty amusing with her own reaction shots. She also gets a nice moment in a diner with Les -- she's probably the smartest character in the film.
An ambitious young man finds himself tending to his boss's girlfriend -- his married boss's secret girlfriend -- who's in despair. It sounds like the middle of The Apartment, but it's actually the focus of Night Owls, a feature that premiered at SXSW and just screened at the Hill Country Film Festival, where it won the Cinema Dulce Best of Fest award. The indie owes a large debt to the 1960 Billy Wilder film without feeling like a remake or tribute.
The movie opens with Madeline (Rosa Salazar) taking Kevin (Adam Pally) home for a boozy one-night stand ... or so Kevin thinks. It's only after their brief liaison that Kevin, about to slip out of the house, realizes in stages that a) it's not her house, it belongs to his boss; b) Madeline's been involved with his boss in some way; and c) she's out cold in the bathroom after overdosing on something unknown.
Austin television fans have been gearing up for the 3rd annual ATX Television Festival (or as the festival likes to say, "Season 3"), running from Thursday, June 5 to Sunday, June 8 in downtown Austin. The relatively new festival features a handful of current television shows as well as a few retrospectives and panels that focus on the behind-the-scenes world of TV. Venues include Alamo Drafthouse Ritz and Stateside at the Paramount.
The full lineup was recently released, and Nineties kids will once again rejoice at the fact that another childhood favorite is coming to ATX. A cast and crew reunion of Hey Dude! is one of the headliners, bringing fan favorites such as Christine Taylor and David Brisbin to town. That's not the only reunion the fest has planned, though. Everwood and Roswell cast members are also coming together again to discuss what it was like to work on these popular shows.
A "Cancelled Too Soon" section is one of the planned series, featuring episode reviews and mini-marathons of the shows My Generation, Enlisted and Men of a Certain Age. These caught my attention because I'm curious to know what a panel discussion about a cancelled show could entail. (I'll try to hit one of these up so I can fill you in.)
Current television shows are also in the mix, including the highly anticipated Season 2 premiere of Orange is the New Black. (The screening takes place the morning of the show's official Season 2 release date on June 6.) Other screenings include episodes from Bates Motel, Archer, Hemlock Grove, Parenthood and many others. A few series premieres are also set to screen, including pilot episodes from the shows Legends, Mulaney, The Night Shift, Reckless and The Strain.
Normally I would not pay much attention to a movie about college guys bonding over sports, especially football. We get more than enough football here in Texas if you are not a fan. But Intramural lured me in -- shot in Austin; directed by Andrew Disney, who showed a nice touch with humor in his previous film Searching for Sonny; written by Bradley Jackson (The Man Who Never Cried). In fact, Jackson pretty much convinced Disney to direct Intramural during Hill Country Film Festival 2012 (after meeting him at Austin Film Festival -- this is why filmmakers should go to film fests), so it felt like a can't-miss as the HCFF closing-night film.
It turns out that Intramural is pretty damn funny, even for middle-age women who don't subscribe to the Texas Cult of Football. The plot is fairly standard -- a bunch of fifth-year college seniors (apparently this is a thing now) decide to get the band, er, intramural team back together for one last hoorah before they graduate. The guys had a championship team in their freshman year that was Marked By Trauma -- yes, it sounds a lot like a combination of Pitch Perfect and The Bad News Bears.
In fact, Intramural is more than aware that it is following in the footsteps of many sports-genre films. One character even gets all Abed (gratuitous Community reference, sorry) about it and makes specific things happen so they will go from underdogs to champions just like teams in sports films -- demanding a training montage, for example.
The characters tend to be types -- even the main character, Caleb (Jake Lacy) is your typical Average Guy In a World of Quirky-to-Bizarre People. His fiancee Vicki (Kate McKinnon) is absolutely insane, and one reason Caleb reunites the intramural football team is to get a breather from her plans and ambitions for him. Then you've got the Nemesis Team, led by evil Dick (Beck Bennett); victim-turned-passionate-coach (Nick Kocher); and the vivacious Cool Chick Who Loves Sports (Nikki Reed). Austin film fans will get a kick out of Sam Eidson as a stereotypical big football lug with an unexpected side talent that had the audience howling.
The cast takes their roles and runs with them. Lacy plays it straight and has a marvelous talent for understated reactions, not an easy thing to accomplish in a sea of over-the-top characters. McKinnon goes entirely in the other direction and makes a completely unpalatable character funny. Bennett, well, best seen to be understood. "Color commentators" Bill and Dan (D.C. Pierson and Jay Pharoah) are a little bit Jay-and-Silent-Bob-stoner like (except they both speak), but are funny enough to get away with it.
Amid all the shorts I enjoyed at Hill Country Film Festival, I also saw some longer movies. One documentary is technically a short but may be longer at some point, and one feature-length doc will likely be somewhat shorter by the time you see it. Both Bluefin on the Line (pictured at top) and Lord Montagu are set in very different environments but ultimately, are about families working hard to preserve their legacies.
Bluefin on the Line is the latest documentary from sometimes-Austin* filmmaker Bradley Beesley, whose previous films include The Fearless Freaks, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo and most appropriately for this subject, Okie Noodling. Elizabeth interviewed the Oklahoma native a couple of years ago for his segment in Slacker 2011. This 37-minute film takes a look at the history and culture of the Bimini Islands over the past century, particularly big-game fishing and how it has affected the people who live there.
I didn't quite realize big-game fishing was a thing, but apparently it was popularized by Ernest Hemingway. Fittingly, his grandson narrates the first section of this film, a breezy overview of big-game fishing in its heyday, especially bluefin tuna. Vintage stills show people holding up fish that look as tall as I am, and I realize I am kind of a short person, but that's impressive nonetheless. The bluefin were ultimately overfished, however, and the Bimini Islands went downhill ever since, with many locals' fishing skills no longer needed. "Tuna Alley" no longer lives up to its name.
This was my third year attending the Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg. I feel like I've got it down to a science. I have a B&NB I like (kitchen, reliable wireless), I can drive to the Hangar Hotel at night without ending up halfway to Kerrville, I even know the least chilly place to sit in the Steve W. Shepherd Theater (I'm not telling). Staff and volunteers know me by name although honestly, I suspect they know most of the badgeholders by name. They are sharp and friendly that way.
I did change things around a bit by arriving in town on Thursday evening instead of making the mad rush on Friday morning to get there for the first film I wanted to see. I walked up to get my badge at 6 pm and found myself in the middle of a party. And that's HCFF all over.
It's time again to start thinking about the Hill Country Film Festival, which runs from April 30-May 4 in Fredericksburg. I just booked my B&B (although is it really a B&B if there's no breakfast? B&NB, perhaps?) and am looking forward to the coziest film festival I've attended.
HCFF is always fun for me because I don't have to rush from venue to venue, the parties are small and people are very friendly, and the audiences always seem to be excited about the movies. The fest is using two theaters this year, but they're not far apart, although it means some tough decision-making is in order.
Austin-shot feature Intramural (pictured at top) is one of the fest's highlights this year. The closing-night film is directed by Andrew Disney, who was at HCFF 2012 with his comedy Searching for Sonny, and written/produced by Bradley Jackson, whose short The Man Who Never Cried screened at HCFF 2012 (both movies on the same day, in fact). Intramural, which debuted at Tribeca Film Festival this week, is about fifth-year college seniors participating in intramural sports.
In the crumbling small town of Jacksonville, known as the Tomato Capital of Texas, a speeding train is coming -- not the frequent trains residents hear almost continually, but a heated mayoral race.
That's the premise of Tomato Republic, a documentary featurette that premiered at the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), where it won a special jury award. Directed by Jenna Jackson, Anthony Jackson and Whitney Graham Carter, Tomato Republic focuses on the mayoral race between three candidates -- incumbent Kenneth Melvin, outspoken restaurateur Rob Gowin, and Kenneth Melvin, the youngest candidate and first African-American to run for the (unpaid) office.
The town's colorful characters are the most engaging part of this film, whether it's the three candidates or the "Rusk Rocket Scientists," who hang out and gossip at local establishments.
I found myself most amused by the filmmaker and interviewees acknowledging the trains running past the town that would often interrupt the filming. When the trains run so often that football games and high-school graduations are impacted, it's ingenious to integrate that frequent occurrence into a documentary.
Filmmaker Chris Dowling, an alumnus of the radio-TV-film program at The University of Texas at Austin, wrote and directed family drama Produce, which debuted at the Dallas International Film Festival last week. Although this film deals with some heavy-hearted issues, overall Produce is an engaging and entertaining story that should please viewers.
The opening sequence of a morning routine of breakfast, shower and a bike commute to work at first appears typical, until the camera angle widens and we see the character simply known as Produce (David DeSanctis), who has Down's Syndrome. It's this foundation that sets an important plot point for the film -- Produce is not defined by his condition despite the challenges and prejudices that he faces daily. He wants nothing more than to be employee of the month at the Value Market where he works as a produce clerk. Sadly his manager and co-workers don't respect him or appreciate his strengths.
The character who's the most challenged in Produce is Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha), a former professional baseball player who choked during a game and numbs his shame with alcohol. The real adult in the house is his daughter, 17-year-old Katie (McKaley Miller), often left to fend for herself while her dad is out drinking with his booze buddies. Calvin's self-destructive behavior threatens his relationship with his daughter, as well as a potential career as a baseball manager.