It was Ladies Night last night at Austin Film Festival. The most anticipated film of the festival, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, played to a packed house with several people giving standing ovations when the credits rolled, despite no guests being in attendance.
Well, that's not entirely true. Ballet Austin's Artistic Director Stephen Mills helped AFF Film Program Director Kelly Williams introduce the film about a ballerina living her dream as a nightmare. Black Swan is a powerful, haunting and incredibly beautiful film won the hearts of the entire audience, critics and fans alike. If you enjoyed the classic film The Red Shoes, you are going to love Black Swan.
A very different movie followed, but another all about the women. Made in Dagenham is the story of the 1968 Machinists strike in the UK when women at a Ford plant outside London got fed up with getting less than half the wages men would for the same job. It's typical UK feel-good fare of the kind that audiences will eat up even with a film that telegraphs every move, especially those of us at a certain age and the female persuasion. Sally Hawkins will get robbed if she doesn't at least get a BAFTA for her performance as the housewife/factory worker who finally stands up for herself. Hearing a couple of women in the bathroom crowing "We've come a long way baby," then suddenly realizing we're still not there yet, proved Made in Dagenham is a relevant film, and well as the adage that reminds us that well-behaved women rarely make history.
When Main Street screened last Thursday at Austin Film Festival, Horton Foote's daughter Hallie introduced the movie, saying that her father was 92 when he wrote this screenplay. Foote's last screenplay is based in Durham, North Carolina. Durham, at least the way the movie depicts it, is dealing with recession and low tourism numbers, and their young folks are migrating to bigger cities.
Ellen Burstyn plays Georgiana Carr, whose father once ran a tobacco dynasty. She lives in the grand old family home, which is practically a separate character in the film, and has recently rented out her former tobacco warehouse -- now empty -- to somewhat-shady Texan Gus Leroy (Colin Firth, whose accent sounds nothing like Texan). The film starts the evening after she has made the deal with him, as she frets in her living room and calls her niece Willa (Patricia Clarkson, the saving grace of this film). They eventually discover what Leroy is storing in the warehouse: toxic waste. What will this mean for the town?
Opening-night gala events at film festivals are not always as fabulous as they might sound. Personally, I like to go find the counterprogrammed movies and watch those instead -- no crowded red carpets, no expectations, and usually you end up seeing the opening-night film in a theater soon anyway. But Austin Film Festival, with its focus on writing, usually doesn't pick an opening-night movie that will be opening in theaters with the month, but rather something less obvious and more interesting.
It might seem curious for a festival with a focus on writing to select a documentary for its opening-night film, but once you've seen the documentary, it makes sense. Exporting Raymond is about Everybody Loves Raymond creator/writer Phil Rosenthal's journeys to Russia to create a Russian version of the popular TV sitcom. It is in the style of a personal essay and is heavily sprinkled with writer/director Rosenthal's comic observations.
There's a lot of buzz about the script reading for the raucously funny The Hand Job on Sunday at the Rollins Theatre with Bill Hader, Colin Hanks, Jessica Alba and others. But earlier during the conference, AFF held another, quieter script reading on Friday in the stuffy little Maxmillian Room at the Driskill. What for? By Way of Helena, a twisty western revenge thriller as yet to be produced.
Earlier in the day, screenwriter Matt Cook participated in the Black List panel, as his screenplay for By Way of Helena was voted one of the best unproduced screenplays of 2009 on The Black List. Immediately following, Black List founder Franklin Leonard introduced Cook for a reading of his script. Helping Cook was an eclectic mix of well known and lesser known actors. The entire lineup at the front of the room, in order, was Cook, Jason Newman (Silas, Clem), Lauren Wolf (Maria), Richard Dillard (Saul, Governor Ross), Yesenia Garcia (Marisol), DB Sweeney (David), Jeff Fahey (Abraham), Savannah Welch (Naomi), Karl Anderson (Isaac), Shannon McCormick (George) and John Spong (Narrator).
Co- producer Craig Bentley and director/co-producer Kevin Tostado took a break in the Driskill Bar before hitting Sunday afternoon panels at Austin Film Festival. That's pretty serious dedication to the game that is the subject of their documentary Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story. This film portrays the well-loved classic board game that is a worldwide cultural phenomenon. We also see vignettes of several players who compete for the title of Monopoly World Champion, including past winners and new underdogs.
Had I not been preparing for an interview with Dax Shepard and his fellow filmmakers from the movie Brother's Justice, I would have asked to join Bentley and Tostado for a quick lesson in auctioning property. Read what I thought about Under the Boardwalk in my review. Here's a clue, though -- after watching, I'm eyeing the "Star Trek: Continuum" Monopoly on Amazon.com now. Remember, the movie plays again at 6 pm today at the Texas Spirit Theater (in the Bob Bullock museum).
After feeling extremely disappointed in a documentary that I highly anticipated due to its subject, I was hesitant to see another documentary on a topic I thought I had less interest in -- the game of Monopoly. Sure, I played the game as a kid, but I'd expect a feature-length film about a board game would be dry and boring. I'm not too proud to admit that the filmmakers behind Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story proved me wrong. Kevin Tostado directed and co-wrote along with Craig Bentley a delightfully engaging piece on a classic game that is firmly rooted in households across the world. The game is now sold in over 110 countries around the world in 40 languages, although as stated in the film, Monopoly "doesn't get translated, it gets located."
Narrated by Chuck star Zachary Levi, Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story presents a cohesive story with several storylines, one of which is the history of the game and other notable facts. Most notably, I was surprised to learn that although Charles Darrow has historically been known as the founder of Monopoly, it was actually Elizabeth Magie who'd originated the concept in 1903 as an anti-capitalist game known as "The Landlord's Game." Thirty years later the game had evolved and Darrow was the final developer who was successful at selling the game to Parker Brothers. The game's initial success is credited with the same reason that Darrow created the game-- he needed a way to earn money during the Depression. Monopoly was well-received as unemployed and poor folks could play a game that allowed them to buy property and houses.
Filmmaker Lucy Walker's documentary Waste Land is lovely to behold ... yes, a lovely film about creating art from trash. A few years ago, artist/photographer (and native Brazilian) Vik Muniz made a decision to use his art to create social change, and the film documents his plan and how it was carried out.
"What I really want to do is to be able to change the lives of a group of people with the same material that they deal with every day," Muniz tells the camera at the start of the film. He travels from his home in the U.S. to Jardim Gramacho in Brazil, the largest landfill in Latin America. Here he comes to know some catadores, people who pick out recyclable items from the garbage in the landfill.
Muniz involves the catadores in his art project, constructing portraits of them out of items found in the landfill. As he learns more about them, we do as well. Zumbi started working the landfill at a young age, was almost killed when the back door of a truck fell down on him, and is upset when people throw away books. Tião, the young president and co-founder of Associação dos Catadores do Aterro Metropolitano de Jardim Gramacho (something like a union for catadores), reads Machiavelli and dreams of a better life for the workers. Irma, an elderly woman, cooks for the workers. Suelem, a teenager, is separated from her two children during the week as she works in the landfill. Magna, a wife and mother, comes to realize her worth during this artistic process.
Iranian cinema is not known for taking on complex social issues, particularly those that challenge the current regime's restrictive expectations. Somehow, Dog Sweat was filmed and has reached international audiences. Maryam Azadi's debut script features six young Iranians with intertwined lives struggling to reconcile their not-so-conservative longings with contemporary Tehran realities just prior to the 2009 elections.
Shot clandestinely throughout Tehran, Dog Sweat opens with Homan, Massoud, and Hooshang getting drunk while arguing the value of Johnnie Walker whiskey and contemplating some unusual tactics they'd employ if America invades, unequivocally establishing Dog Sweat as a very different film than the usual Iranian fare that makes it to American shores. Each character is at a crossroads, following one's heart's desires or cowing to societal pressures. The consequences aren't minor; these are criminal acts in Iran, and as each character makes their choice, there is no turning back.
Massoud is more concerned about where to get liquor, be it Johnny Walker Blue or home brewed "dog sweat." Hooshang enjoys spending all his free time with Homan, but considers the trappings of marriage as a means to finding freedom. Counterpoints to these young men are Katie, Katherine and Mahsa -- a self-proclaimed feminist hiding her affair, a shy girl who just wants to "have fun" with Kate's brother, and an aspiring singer who could be arrested for even attempting to fulfill her dream.
Probably the most eagerly anticipated event at Austin Film Festival each year is the traditional Hair of the Dog Brunch. I'd heard talk of the brunch for years, but didn't attend until last year when I learned what all the fuss was about. Despite crowds spilling out of Ranch 616 and onto the sidewalk to eat, it's a great place to relax and enjoy great food and good company.
Every year there's a couple of people I'll continually encounter during AFF, and this year it has to be Ya'Ke Smith of Katrina's Son. I stopped to say hello and warn him that his mug would be Slackerwood's next AFF Quick Snaps. We talked about his upcoming projects, including a feature-length version of Katrina's Son. Behind him in line were more AFF 2010 award winning filmmakers -- the crew from Adios Mundo Cruel (pictured at top), including Yossy Zagha Kababie, Jack Zagha Kababie and Enrique Chmelnik. Yossy had read my review of their film, and asked me to explain who Jean-Pierre Jeunet is. They are hopeful for Adios Mundo Cruel to be picked up for distribution soon. An encore of Adios Mundo Cruel will screen tonight at the Bob Bullock Museum IMAX Theatre at 9:30pm.
Also at the brunch were some of my favorite women in the Texas film industry -- Texas Film Commission's marketing director Carla Click, another TFC staffer whose name escapes me (sorry!) and Deputy Director Carol Pirie.
Updated November 15, 2010.
Slackerwood was all over Austin Film Festival this year, from panels to brunches to script readings to parties ... oh, yes, and of course watching actual movies. We've got a lot of coverage to share and thought it would be handy to have it all in one place. The following list (after the jump) includes all our 2010 AFF coverage to date, and will be updated regularly.