SXSW Review: The Infinite Man


The Infinite ManTime-travel movies can be so difficult to execute that few filmmakers attempt them. Fewer still can claim success. Of those, I've reserved the highest praise, citing as the only time-travel movie that "gets it right" by being internally self-consistent, playing by its own rules while still being entertaining and managing to surprise the audience, for Nacho Vigolondo's Time Crimes. Until now. Many might ask about Rian Johnson's hit Looper, which is a good film, I agree, but which in the end breaks the rules.

Like Time Crimes, The Infinite Man is a micro-budget sci-fi story with a cast of only three characters. They are Dean (Josh McConville), his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall), and her ex Terry (Alex Dimitriades), who is obsessed with Lana and wants her back.

In addition to being a brilliant crackerjack scientist, Dean is a control freak who can't be satisfied with anything less than perfection. On the anniversary of their first, perfect date, Dean and Lana return to the same location as he attempts to recreate it in every detail. Unfortunately, there are too many variables out of his control, including the sudden appearance of Terry, intent on regaining the love of Lana. After the date falls apart, Dean spends a year creating a time machine and thus begins a loop returning to the fateful weekend as he seeks to put things right.

The ensuing encounters with himself, with Lana, and with Terry, shot from different locations and angles, play out hilariously as the truth of the story is slowly revealed not just to the audience, but to Dean himself. Writer/director Hugh Sullivan's clever script explores the unhealthier aspects of relationships such as self-doubt, co-dependence, obsessiveness, and controlling behaviors metaphorically through the actions of his characters.

SXSW Review: Above All Else


Above All Else

East Texas isn't exactly a hotbed of political activism -- at least not the kind of activism that makes the world a better place.

The heavily wooded, mostly rural region of Texas is one of the reddest parts of a mostly red state, a place firmly rooted in Southern cultural tradition, deeply conservative religious fervor, economic libertarianism and anachronistic good ol' boy politics. It's the last place you'd expect a bunch of hippies to pick a fight with a giant corporation.

But a bunch of hippies did. Their battle is the subject of Above All Else, filmmaker John Fiege's engaging and enraging documentary about a group of activists and landowners determined to stop construction of the reviled Keystone XL oil pipeline on their land.

The pipeline is slated to carry tar sands oil -- a particularly dirty, viscous, gritty kind of petroleum -- from Alberta, Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Pipeline proponents claim it will increase North American energy independence and create jobs; opponents claim it's potentially dangerous and will kill more jobs than it creates. They also oppose the continued burning of fossil fuels, which exacerbates global warming.

Review: Veronica Mars


Kristen Bell, Percy Daggs III, and Tina Majorino in Veronica Mars

A long time ago, or so it seems to fans of the show, teen detective drama Veronica Mars was cancelled. Since its somewhat abrupt end, the series has grown a larger cult following through people introduced to the show via subscribed streaming services (raises hand) or DVD sets borrowed from friends (the case for my sister). The question high on the mind of these dedicated watchers: When will we get a movie?

Thanks to a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, this weekend the film is being released. Veronica Mars will simultaneously open in select theatres at the same time that digital copies are available for purchase. The film, from Austin director/showrunner Rob Thomas, will be the first to be released in such a fashion. It is apt that this film, funded partially through new media, be the selected title to test this out.

Guided by the exuberant response from fans, Thomas included familiar faces we know and love in the cast, led by Kristen Bell in her lead role as Veronica.  It has been 10 years since she graduated from Neptune High. Veronica has moved to NYC to complete law school and hook up again with college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell), who now works in public radio with Ira Glass (of course he does!). Former love Logan (Jason Dohring) calls her back to her California hometown to help him fight a murder rap.

SXSW Review: Creep



Jason Blum must be one of the busiest men in Hollywood. With 36 credited projects already, and another 23 currently in production, Blum has proven himself not just hardworking, but also with a keen eye for horror films that use the simplest elements to reach the heart of what unsettles us and play on our innermost fears. Mark Duplass is a veteran of the mumblecore genre, which eschews narrative scripts and focuses on development of character and natural dialogue.

Put these guys together with writer/director Patrick Brice, and you get Creep, a microbudget hackle-raiser as scary as Paranormal Activity.

Brice stars as Aaron Franklin (one wonders if this is a tribute to Franklin Barbecue), who answers a Craigslist ad placed by Josef (Duplass) for a videographer to spend a day shooting his life. The creepiness begins immediately when Aaron arrives to find that nobody appears to be home, and the house and grounds have an ominous feel.

As Aaron prepares to leave, Josef silently appears in a startling reveal that sets the tone for the rest of the day. Josef, with his habit of appearing suddenly, often with an accompanying "rawr" or stomping thump, delights in keeping Aaron -- as well as the audience -- off-balance. Each scare is immediately explained away by the apologetic Josef, whose off-putting actions sound almost completely reasonable when taken in context.

During a Q&A with Brice and Duplass following the Creep premiere, they described the process in which the film evolved as they would shoot and edit scenes, show them to friends and then return to the rented cabin for additional shooting, bringing the script revision process off paper and into the camera. They populated the set with as many lamps as possible to reduce the need for extra lighting equipment, which also allowed for a natural, believable look for the handheld cinematography.

SXSW Review: Before I Disappear


Before I Disappear

Shawn Christensen's 2012 short film Curfew was a film-festival darling, winning 15 awards including a 2013 Oscar. I haven't seen Curfew, but certainly want to if it's as good as the feature-length version of the same story, Before I Disappear.

Christensen's debut feature is quirky, but I mean that in a good way. A genre-bending mix of family drama, thriller, love story and surreal fantasy, Before I Disappear is the dark story of Richie (Christensen), a broke and depressed drug addict adrift in New York City. He spends his time hanging out in seedy clubs and earning a meager living as a janitor. His job only compounds his depression when he cleans a restroom and finds the body of an overdose victim, a beautiful woman who reminds him of his dead girlfriend.

One afternoon, a phone call interrupts Richie's halfhearted attempt to kill himself. Long estranged from his family, he's surprised that the call is from his wealthy and far more functional sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), who asks him to take care of her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), for a few hours after school. A series of bizarre events keeps Maggie busy all night and forces Richie and Sophia to spend the night wandering the streets of New York and visiting Richie's favorite haunts. (They're not places any sane person would take a child.)

SXSW 2014: Enthralled by 'Last Hijack'


Still from Last Hijack

Before I attend film festivals, I sketch out an overloaded schedule and give myself multiple options, sometimes based more on where and when a movie is playing than the subject matter of the film itself.  Monday, I had mainly chosen to see Last Hijack because it was playing at Alamo Drafthouse Village. I figured the doc would be a good counterbalance to Cesar Chavez, and I could get my third Alamo pretzel of the fest.*  A friend happened to tweet the trailer for the documentary/animation earlier that day, and it looked terrific. 

The screening wasn't jam-packed, but most seats were full as we watched the real-life drama unfold.  Filmmakers Femke Wolting and former Austinite Tommy Pallotta depict some months in the life of Mohamed, a Somalian man whose tragic life has eventually led him to piracy hijackings at sea. He hopes to marry a young woman, but her family (and his parents, as well) want him to quit his piracy. He plans one last hijack to make money for him and his new wife to live in style. 

SXSW Review: The Dog


The Dog

Drafthouse Films is building a strong slate of quality documentaries, and The Dog is a fine addition to that collection.

Filmmakers Allison Berg and Francois Keraudren, who brought their previous film Witches in Exile to SXSW in 2004, have completed an 11-year project to document the life of John Wojtowicz, aka "The Dog," who became famous in 1971 for robbing a Chase Manhattan bank in order to pay for gender reassignment surgery for his lover. The event served as inspiration for the 1975 Sidney Lumet film Dog Day Afternoon.

Beginning with his early years, The Dog covers a journey to Vietnam and a return to post-war Stonewall New York during the birth of the gay rights movement, revealing a fascinating character who refuses to play by any rules but his own. Wojtowicz is a force of nature, who describes himself as "an angel with horns," who does not drink, smoke, or gamble, reserving sex as his only vice.

Through Wojtowicz's eyes we see the Robin Hood story of the failed robbery attempt, the aftermath of his trial, his time in prison, and ultimate rejection by Liz Eden, his lover. Presented as a monster in the news media of the day and largely forgotten since, Wojtowicz presents a charismatic, likable figure in footage which covers his last years, and well before the end of the film, I found myself wishing I could meet this charming scoundrel.

The Dog is humorous, fascinating, and slightly tragic, especially in terms of the fallout for Wojtowicz's family. The loyalty of his mother as well as his former wives serves as evidence of his underlying goodness or of the cult of personality he would build around himself.

You can decide for yourself at the remaining screening tonight -- Thursday, March 13 at 9:30 pm at Alamo Village. If you miss it, The Dog was picked up by Drafthouse Films and is scheduled for an August 2014 release. I sat down with Berg and Keraudren for a few minutes after the film, so look for that conversation following the fest.

SXSW Review: Faults


Faults still

I've never been one for films about cults. I suppose it's because they're such a taboo subject within our society, not to mention they flat out give me the creeps, I've never gone out of my way to watch films on the topic. And no, not even when people gave me the nickname "Martha Marcy May Marcelena." But something caught my attention in reading about Riley Stearns' debut feature film, Faults.

The story starts with a deadbeat guy getting kicked out of a restaturant. He is trying to use a free meal voucher, but the manager knows he already used it the night before. The guy downs his food, then tries to eat all of the condiments on the table. After a physical struggle with the manager, he is thrown out of the restaurant. This is Ansel (Leland Orser), our film's protagonist. What I later realized I enjoyed so much about this intro is that it sets up the main character perfectly: a washed up, once-famous public speaker who will do what he can to con people, even for a free meal.

SXSW Review: Two Step


Two Step

For decades, law enforcement agencies have been warning people of a common phone scam: An elderly person receives a phone call from someone pretending to be the person's grandchild or other family member. The caller says he's desperate for money, and asks the victim to deposit money in a bank account. This scam is often successful; the elderly victims, feeling lonely and forgotten, want to help their family members and are easily conned.

Normally, the victims lose money but never meet the con artists or suffer any physical harm. But in the stylish thriller Two Step, the scam turns deadly and personal.

In the Austin-made film, career criminal Webb (James Landry Hébert) is part of ring of phone scammers, making his calls from prison. When he's released, he's ready to continue his criminal ways and reunite with his girlfriend and fellow scammer, Amy (Ashley Spillers). But the reunion doesn't go as planned. Fed up with Webb's physical and emotional abuse, Amy leaves him the minute he returns home, taking their ill-gotten cash with her. Even worse, he owes $10,000 to the ringleader, Duane (Jason Douglas), who banishes him from the ring for his erratic and violent ways. But Webb is determined to repay the money and make amends with his boss.

SXSW Review: No No: A Dockumentary


no no a dockumentary

No No: A Dockumentary was directed by Austinite Jeffrey Radice and came about with much local support and funding (including a grant from Austin Film Society), so it was no surprise that it made its SXSW premiere to a big and welcoming crowd at the Paramount last Saturday.

The film explores the life of Dock Ellis, a Major League baseball player known for his talent as a pitcher as well as for the memorable feat of pitching a no-hitter (aka the "no no" of the title) while high on LSD. He also played at a time rife with racial tension and when illicit but quietly accepted drug use was rampant among players -- and rather than remaining a passive bystander in terms of baseball politics, Ellis was vocal and persistent in sharing his opinions.

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