The territory Alexander Payne explores in his films, that place where melancholy and outlandish human behavior collide, is once again accessed in his latest movie, Nebraska. Starring Bruce Dern as an aging alcoholic and Will Forte as his well-meaning son, the film meanders across the plains and valleys of family relationships, nostalgia and regret to reveal moments of sad beauty and awkward humor.
Falling for a magazine marketing ploy, old Woody Grant (Dern) believes he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. Though his son David (Forte) knows it's simply junk mail, he has nothing better to do -- so he agrees to drive from Montana to Nebraska with his father to collect the money and let him find out the truth for himself. Along the mishap-laden journey, the two men visit Woody's hometown and encounter a cast of family and old friends.
Filmed in black and white in a landscape defined by sparseness and open space, Nebraska is filled with striking moments of stark desolation and piercing loneliness. Woody embodies these traits himself; he is a man who often tried his best over the years, but never shared himself with his wife and sons and mostly devoted himself to drinking instead. As David travels with his estranged father and finds out more about him, he is greeted with surprise after surprise and realizes he never knew much about Woody at all. The more he learns the more confused he becomes about his own life, which he seems to be passively enduring.
Payne explores similar themes to the ones found in About Schmidt, but in that film he cleverly used an epistolary device to dive into the depths of his main character's head and heart. Unfortunately he has less success with revelation here; Woody remains largely inscrutable and distant, and David functions as a question-asker and chauffeur but doesn't get to do much else. Overshadowed by imagery (lovely as it is), the two main characters never feel fully formed in the ways that many of Payne's previous creations have been.
I tried to focus my Austin Film Festival picks this year around movies that were world premiere screenings. The curation at the festival is incredibly diverse and I wanted to see what the programmers thought was deserving of the spotlight. This led me to two of the more interesting films I caught over the last week.
Take Away One is a fascinating documentary that really tells two stories in one. Director William Lorton has spent the last several years editing reality television, but he had his own true-life story to tell. His aunt Mary was a grad student in elementary education at U.C. Berkeley who developed her own teaching style while interning at some rougher inner-city schools in California in the late 60s. Most people have at least heard of Montessori schools, but Mary's contribution to teaching curriculums across the nation is almost as revolutionary.
After the bleak shorts I attended on Saturday, I decided a light romance was what I needed Sunday afternoon. I went to the screening of My Man Godfrey (1936) at the Paramount, introduced by Shane Black, and then drove over to the Rollins.
Director Guillermo Fernández Groizard was there to introduce his film I'm Dating You Not, filmed in Madrid. The fast-paced comedy stars his wife Virginia Rodríguez as Paula, a woman whose coworker Roberto (Dario Frias) is besotted with her.
The director told us before the movie began that the budget for this work was in the hundred-thousands (!!), but I'm Dating You Not has the look of something with a larger budget. Rodríguez and Frias have a great will-they/won't-they chemistry and the script by Pablo Flores is silly without being stupid. The Spanish film was a perfect remedy.
In another vein entirely, I was able to view Rick Rosenthal's excellent thriller Drones. The movie is a fictional depiction of a lieutenant's first day on drone duty, but the problems Lt. Lawson (Eloise Mumford) and Jack (Matt O'Leary) confront are very real. How much collateral damage is too much?
Most of the movie has Lawson and Jack working in a stuffy trailer at a Nevada Air Force base, with a limited amount of time to control their aircraft thousands of miles away in Pakistan (before "bingo time" when the drone runs out of fuel). They are tracking the home of suspected terrorist Mahmoud Khalil (Amir Khalighi). We watch in real time as Lawson and Jack question each other and their higher-ups about the task they have been assigned.
This nail-biter of a film touches on sexism in the military, military suicide, and the more obvious question of the ethics of drone warfare. Thanks to the intense story and acting by Mumford and O'Leary, Drones is not a movie I'm likely to forget.
Drones plays again Thurs, Oct. 31 at 8:45 pm at the Hideout [Festival Genius].
Certain films grab me from just the description of the story. Sure, that's how most films grab us, but sometimes the description can be vague or not true to the story, causing us to miss it entirely. This is why when I read the description, "A struggling dwarf actor auditions for the role of The Tin Man in a Scorsese remake of The Wizard of Oz," I knew I had to do what I could to get a chance to see The Little Tin Man at AFF.
I'll admit: I was sold on the joke of Scorsese remaking The Wizard of Oz, as it is perhaps my favorite movie of all time. That idea alone would make anyone curious to see what The Little Tin Man was about. We often see films that follow the struggle of the working actor, looking for gigs that aren't just commercials and extra work; this isn't a new idea. But a struggling actor who is a little person trying to break the mold on the roles he is typically offered? That is a story I've not seen before.
With the conference winding down, I have found myself having AFF withdrawals. Now that I was able to breathe (and sleep in) again, I was able to actually look at a schedule and try to pick something to go to in advance.
I had no intention of seeing Inside Llewyn Davis. It's not that I wasn't interested, but I knew that it would be coming out in theatres soon (December 20, in Austin). So when my friend Alexa told me she was going to make it downtown again for the screening, along with a handful of other friends who would be there, I figured I might as well see what it's all about.
I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. Films like Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski are up there amongst my favorites. But lately, I felt the films they have put out haven't been their best. I tried to keep an open mind as AFF Film Department Director Ryan Darbonne introduced Oscar Isaac (who plays Llewyn Davis) and T-Bone Burnett (executive music producer on the film), who gave a quick introduction to the movie.
Saturday evening at Austin Film Festival, I ran into a friend from high school at The Hideout. As we stood in line talking with a college-age badgeholder about what we'd seen so far, we noticed some recognizable faces were basically cutting in line in front of us (with permission from AFF folks). Some cast members from NBC's Revolution wanted to check out the Shorts 4 program.
Among the actors I spotted were Giancarlo Esposito, Stephen Collins (7th Heaven) and Brenda Strong (who's on the new Dallas). Not a one of them refused a picture with a fan (as our new young friend was happy to discover). We got in, but I'm not sure all of the film passholders in line did. Indeed, two of the three shorts programs I attended that day were full to bursting. AFF might want to consider moving the shorts to a larger venue next year.
To say I have been all over Austin Film Festival would be an understatement. Although this is my third festival to attend, it is the first year that I have gone as a writer instead of an AFF staff member.
My experience has been a little different than that of my fellow Slackerwood contributors. I kicked off the festival Thursday afternoon in the OnStory Press Room, assisting in taping interviews for the television show's upcoming fourth season. We had a pretty packed schedule over the first four days of the conference, so I wasn't sure how being in that room for the majority of the festival would affect my overall experience.
It ended up being the time of my life. Even though I was just asking a certain set of questions for the show, I got to chat face-to-face with some great writers such as David Lowery, Rian Johnson, Vince Gilligan, Ray McKinnon, Jonathan Demme, Callie Khouri and many others. To hear these filmmakers talk about their process, including the challenges they face in their craft and how they overcome them, was truly inspiring. I may not have attended all of the panels I wanted, but I feel that I took away some very valuable information just from these interviews.
I never know how early to arrive to line up for an AFF panel; I tend to err on the side of caution and was downtown an hour before the first panels I wanted to attend. Before "A Conversation with Callie Khouri" began on Sunday morning, I actually saw her in the bathroom. Yes, I stopped myself from asking when Avery and Juliette will finally hook up on Nashville (but inquiring minds want to know!) -- and didn't even ask her about it during the panel itself.
Ben Blacker (creator of the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast) led the interview with Khouri, who told us about her childhood in Kentucky (after her birth in San Antonio). She read a lot for stimulation, but as for writing, "I never thought it was something I could do."
Khouri wrote Thelma and Louise in six months after living and working in L.A. for a time. This screenplay was the "greatest experience writing I've ever had... I felt like something had come to me... it consumed me." She didn't follow any guidelines for screenplay structure and didn't even use an outline, "I knew nothing about screenwriting." She began with the idea that two women go on a crime spree, and it took off from there. She said the whole feeling of the movie came to her at once, like "being punched in the heart."
Once in awhile, you look at an Austin Film Festival panel listing and your heart just goes pitter-pat. Or thumpity-thump. Or whatever noise it is when you are especially excited about a panelist. I may be old and jaded but still susceptible. When I saw Elaine May would be in Austin for the fest, I decided I would go hear her speak no matter what time of day it was and what else I was supposed to be doing.
But last week was a little crazy for me, and I am never very organized with my fest scheduling, so it's not really surprising I got the date of Elaine May's panel wrong and missed it. (Dale Roe has a great write-up.) However, I did make it to Rollins on Friday to see A New Leaf for the first time and enjoy a Q&A from star/writer/director May.
This 1971 film is May's directorial debut -- she also co-stars in it with Walter Matthau. He's brilliant, she's brilliant, it's terribly funny, and I just found out it's on Amazon Prime streaming so I can watch it again soon. Preferably with my husband, who might find some sympathy with a character who's involved with someone terribly flaky who can't put her clothes on properly and has crumbs all over her front after eating and falls down and spills things a lot.
Gardner (Joseph Mazzello, Jurassic Park) is a socially awkward, 25-year-old mail carrier in the indie romantic comedy Dear Sidewalk. He keeps to a usual routine which includes a postal route walking through Austin neighborhoods, a daily chat with sarcastic retiree Trudy (Lana Dieterich) and weekly meetings with his small philatelic club. This stamp-collecting group is made up of his postal service co-workers (Davi Jay, Hugo Perez and C. K. McFarland) who encourage him to get out more. Meanwhile, he sleeps in a boat in front of his best pal Calvin's (Josh Fadem, 30 Rock) house.
Then fortysomething divorcee Paige (Michelle Forbes, True Blood) moves into a house on his route and disrupts his daily pattern. She flirts with him and takes him to the Cathedral of Junk. She throws his watch in Town Lake (or Lady Bird Lake, if you prefer). What does this mean for Gardner?
Mazzello at first appears uncertain of how he wants to portray Gardner, but grows into the role as Dear Sidewalk progresses (or maybe it just bothered me less as the film went on). The relationship between Gardner and brother-from-another-mother Calvin is sweet -- they are both odd birds -- and fits with the goofy vibe of the film. Indeed, their friendship seemed more believable than the idea of Paige and Gardner getting together.
The character of Paige comes off as incomplete. We're given some facts about her (she's recently divorced, used to be an artist and hates the blind dates her brother keeps setting her up on), but there is much left unknown about her and not as much depth to the role as I would like.
Sure, the plot is a smidge disjointed, but the writing made me laugh out loud more than once. The supporting characters (diverse in age and ethnicity, yay) were standouts of the movie. Trudy is fearless and flirty. Gardner's co-workers are quirky and full of advice for him. I can't neglect to mention Ashley Spillers, who injects some verve into Dear Sidewalk as a love interest for Calvin [see our interview with Ashley].
Dear Sidewalk is director Jake Oelman's first feature film, and shows Austin as a walkable city: Gardner doesn't own a car, and seems to take the path near Auditorium Shores daily. As the mail carrier traverses streets dense with trees, the film also features some colorful houses in town. The Austin in this movie has the feeling of a smaller suburban town -- with a great view of downtown easily available.