I've been planning on wrapping up my Austin Film Festival content with capsule reviews for some of the short films I saw at this year's festival. However, after reflecting on Veteran's Day I thought it only fitting to give special attention to one short film in particular that I'd not covered in the AFF 2010 Preview: Selected Shorts: Veterans, directed by Miguel Alvarez (Mnemosyne Rising) and funded by a 2006 Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund grant. With so many great short films at AFF this year, Veterans hadn't originally made it to the top of my list. However, after subsequent viewings I have to admit that this poignant and somber short film is a "must see." It's a touching story of sacrifices not just made for our country, but for loved ones.
Shot on Super 8 by cinematographer Bear Guerra, Veterans has a home movie film feel but with higher production value and striking visual imagery. The story is told through a series of images of family photos and movies along with mementos, and is narrated by Joe Alvarez, the director's father. The film opens with Joe Alvarez recounting his memories of dreams at 17 years of age, a premonition that he was hit by a bomb and sent flying through the air. He had the same nightmare every week -- until it actually happened while he was in Vietnam.
Joe Alvarez's father had also served in the military. During World War II, he was given an option to either join the army or go back to Mexico. Being patriotic, he decided to go to war despite family attempting to convince him that it wasn't his war with the response, "This country gave me everything I got, and now I'm giving my life for this country."He took part in the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, where he was hit with shrapnel in the back, knocked out and hospitalized. His experiences left him with a lot of anger and frustrations that he internalized. He kept secrets in his handmade souvenir box, including a collar from a German officer that he'd overtaken in a foxhole.
In addition to appearing for the red carpet premiere of Brother's Justice at this year's Austin Film Festival, the lead stars and filmmakers sat down with media while they were in town. I enjoyed a pleasant and humorous conversation with lead actor and director Dax Shepard, as well as cinematographer/director David Palmer and producer/actor Nate Tuck, pictured above.
Brother's Justice (Jette's review) is best described as a mockumentary with Shepard aspiring to become an international martial-arts star. Check out what the filmmaking trio had to say about Brother's Justice as well as their thoughts on Austin actors and filmmakers, including the Wilson and Duplass brothers.
Dax, this isn't your first time in Austin. Can you talk about some of your prior experiences here?
Dax Shepard: In 2004, I shot Idiocracy here so I lived in Austin for three months. It is to date my favorite location, including New Zealand, which was pretty spectacular. I do hope to live here at some point. If I can get them to relocate Parenthood I'll be in heaven. To get into this film festival was really great. Even if the film festival sucked, it was still a trip to Austin so we were going to win no matter what.
In the late 1980s, I was heavily involved in the Houston music scene due to my stint at a college radio station and later at a pub that featured nightly live music. However, the music scene there became stagnant and our establishment dropped to two nights a week with a meager budget to pay the bands. Local band Fab Motion captured the plight of many musicians with a lyrical response to the standard "Hey hippie, get a job!" with "What? I have THREE jobs." All ears turned to Austin, where bands such as the True Believers, The Reivers, Ian Moore, Joe Ely and Stevie Ray Vaughn had audiophiles wondering if our capital city would be the next Athens, Georgia. When I moved to Austin in 1993, I enjoyed the freedom to see live music any night of the week in the "Live Music Capital of the World" and play from a diverse range of local artists while deejaying at UT Austin's 91.7 KVRX.
Now that Austin has high-rises rising up amongst our downtown skyline, how are our local musicians impacted? Director Nathan Christ examines this important topic in his documentary, Echotone, as he and cinematographer Robert Garza follow Austin's independent music culture over a two-year period, featuring musicians, venues, promoters and others within the city landscape. Echotone is a poignant reminder of the abundance of talent and passion in the Austin music scene, along with the challenges and frustrations faced by creative artists and local music venues.
Likeable murderers in film are usually limited to those we admire for their style, not for being sweet and sympathetic. Miss Nobody is an exception and one of the sweetest black comedies you'll likely ever see from its vivacious opening credits til the startling final shot.
With its Pushing Daisies sensibilities, Miss Nobody is the colorful and cheerful murders-by-number tale of an insignificant admin assistant who takes a chance and becomes an executive ... with a pesky little body count. The invisibly mousey Sarah Jane McKinney (Leslie Bibb) follows up on her friend's suggestion to apply for a promotion, only to find her true calling as she climbs a particularly deadly corporate ladder. When a most fortunate accident launches Sarah Jane's career, she finds herself at the mercy of some of the most Machiavellian corporate execs on screen. This is a truly cutthroat business environment, leaving Sarah Jane no choice but to employ some creative career enders.
Writer/director Dax Shepard, cinematographer/director David Palmer and producer Nate Tuck were on the red carpet for the premiere of Brother's Justice at AFF 2010. The trio were also the stars of this mockumentary about Shepard's efforts to delve into the martial arts genre, although Palmer is most often behind the camera as "the camera guy." It's the natural relationship between Shepard and Tuck as they try to enlist more people in their project that I enjoyed the most. Check back soon for my interview with Shepard, Palmer and Tuck.
Here are more photos from the event, including the cast and crew of the short film The Legend of El Limbo, which preceded Brother's Justice. First up is star Dax Shepard.
Take a classic slasher setup, a bunch of young people isolated in the woods, and turn the trope on its overly predictable ear and you get the indie horror film I Didn't Come Here to Die by Austinite Bradley Scott Sullivan.
With one of the best ever taglines ("Volunteer work is a killer"), Sullivan's screenplay takes a small group of "Volunteers of American Generating Goodwill" out to a remote location to start work on what will eventually be campgrounds for underprivileged urban youth. As the first team to work on the project, they're roughing it in tents, with no phone service, and supposedly, no alcohol and no fraternization. All the rules in place are for safety's sake, but once rules start being broken, everything and everyone starts down a slippery, bloody slope.
Austin Film Festival is over for another year, but we're still covering it. And now that official photos from AFF are available for the panels related to By Way of Helena, here they are. Above are DB Sweeney and Jeff Fahey, who took the lead roles during Friday's script reading.
The above photo of Casino Jack director George Hickenlooper, with actor Jon Lovitz, was taken on Thursday night at the Paramount. Hickenlooper and Lovitz were in town for the Austin Film Festival closing-night film and party -- red carpet beforehand, Q&A afterward, you know the drill.
Hickenlooper then headed to Denver to screen Casino Jack at the Denver Starz Film Festival. Sadly, George Hickenlooper died in Denver on Saturday morning. He was 47 years old. His filmography also includes Factory Girl, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, the short Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (on which the feature Sling Blade was based) and the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now.
I can't say anything better than Moises Chiullan does over at Badass Digest, and I urge you to go read his column about the director. Chiullan was friends with Hickenlooper and had planned to work with him on a Hearts of Darkness commentary track.
One of the best things about attending film festivals is that while seeing a lot of interesting films, you also learn a lot of interesting things. For example, thanks to the intriguing documentary The Spirit Molecule, I now know that dimethyltryptamine is one hell of a great drug.
Better known as DMT, dimethyltryptamine is the subject of Austin filmmaker Mitch Schultz's über-trippy examination of a drug found in nearly every living organism and considered the world's most powerful psychedelic. Combining stunningly psychedelic animation with thoughtful interviews, The Spirit Molecule is a paean to psychedelic drug use that also asks a lot of questions about the nature of human consciousness.
The long-suffering city of Port Arthur, Texas has a love-hate relationship with the oil industry. Without the industry's refinery jobs, Port Arthur probably would cease to exist, and its residents would be hard pressed to find other employment in a regional economy based almost entirely on petrochemicals. But Port Arthur residents also pay a high price for their reliance on oil, because the industry that sustains them also poisons many of them.
Shelter in Place is a poignant and often enraging look at Port Arthur's poorest residents, who see few benefits from the oil-based economy while suffering almost all of its consequences. The 48-minute-long documentary by British filmmaker Zed Nelson, which screened at Austin Film Festival in partnership with The Texas Observer, is the sort of angrily effective agit-prop film that every anti-regulatory, free-enterprise preaching Texas politician should see, but surely won't.
The film focuses on the hapless inhabitants of Carver Terrace, a decaying Port Arthur neighborhood surrounded by refineries. Carver Terrace often experiences "upsets," an industry term for the release of toxic chemicals such as benzene into the air to relieve pressure in refinery pipes and avoid potential disasters. Upsets can last for many hours and contribute heavily to air pollution, but despite their alarming frequency (there were 13,000 upsets in Texas in 2007 alone), they're perfectly legal in Texas as long as the refineries report them to state environmental regulators.