SXSW Review: Computer Chess


Computer Chess

I work in high-tech so I'm no stranger to computer nerds, as they might have been called during the era in which the movie Computer Chess is set -- the 1980s, when computers were beginning to become portable. On the surface, this is a movie about "computers versus humans" in a chess tournament, but filmmaker Andrew Bujalski provides his actors with an environment for their characters to expand beyond nerdy stereotypes, giving the movie thoughtfulness and depth.

Computer Chess takes place at a weekend tournament where teams match their computers' best chess programs with one another, to see which is superior. The winning team will pit their computer against a human chess master. The programmers aren't the only people holding events in the hotel, however, and a weekend couples-encounter retreat provides some amusing contrast.

The film is shot and structured as though it were a documentary or found footage -- Bujalski even used a vintage video camera to shoot in black and white, to great effect. I wouldn't call it a "mockumentary" because it implies a level of screwball spoofery that isn't present. The "action" often pauses for characters to discuss whatever's on their mind, resulting in a slower pace than you might expect but also more fascinating characters and insights. The humor here is mostly subtle and sporadic, except for the couples-encounter scenes and a subplot about a character who can't find a place to sleep.

SXSW 2013: 'Sequin Raze' Filmmaker and Stars


Anna Camp and Ashley Williams of Sequin Raze

There's never a short supply of well known actors at SXSW Film Festival promoting their feature-length movies, but it's not often that you'll find stars representing short films. However, this year one short film stood out for its female-driven story supported by strong performances from familiar faces Anna Camp and Ashley Williams -- Sequin Raze, directed by former reality television producer and writer/director Sarah Gertrude Shapiro. The film won an Honorable Mention jury award for narrative shorts at SXSW.

Sequin Raze takes viewers behind the scene of a hit reality TV show as jilted contestant Rebecca (Camp) attempts to leave with her dignity while battling producer Rebecca Goldberg (Williams), who must get the "money shot" for ratings. The pair engage in a psychological battle from which only one woman can emerge victorious -- but at what price? This riveting film made such an impact on me that I'll never look at reality television in the same way. I spoke with stars Camp and Williams as well as writer/director Shapiro at SXSW earlier this month about Sequin Raze.

Slackerwood (to Shapiro): What can you tell us about the background and realization for Sequin Raze?

Sarah Gertrude Shapiro: Legally I can't be super-specific about what the inspiration was, but it was inspired by a moment in my life. I did work in reality TV, so there's obviously those parts of my life informed it a lot. I think it was a really poignant moment that kind of folded into the layers of all that and encapsulated all the struggles that I had during that time, and a lot of specific scars that I'm left with and I still struggle with based on that experience. It was more than a specific incident that I built off. It was all of these themes, ideas and feelings that I deal with in all of my work. It just became the perfect place to explore them.

SXSW Review: A Teacher


A Teacher

The Austin-shot movie A Teacher, written/directed/produced by Hannah Fidell, colors outside the lines with its portrayal of a high-school romance gone awry.

Maryland native Fidell's follow-up to We're Glad You're Here (2010) takes a decisively different look at adulthood and loss of innocence. While the two films have the same star (Lindsay Burdge), A Teacher raises questions about the role educators have on a student's life, the idea of maturity and what constitutes an "adult." Burdge plays Diana Watts, an AP English teacher at an Austin high school whose consensual relationship with one of her male students (former UT student Will Brittain) spirals out of control. 

A Teacher opens with Diana preparing herself to step in front of the classroom stage by going through her morning routine of jogging and driving to work. She loses herself in the motions of normalcy, with her reusable mug and J. Crewesque clothes, but this thirtysomething is far from normal. Or is she?

SXSW 2013: Ghost Ghirls and Tenacious D


Producer and Writers of Ghost Ghirls, by Hal Horowitz

Ghost Ghirls is a new online comedy series presented by Yahoo!Screen that follows two young female ghostbusters as they solve mysteries of paranormal phenomena. Portrayed by comedians Amanda Lund and Maria Blasucci, the pair emulate Shawn and Gus of Psych more than Sherlock Holmes and Watson as they attempt to convince their clients and local law enforcement of their legitimacy as investigators.

Ghost Ghirls was created by Jeremy Konner, Lund and Blasucci, who also serve as executive producers -- seen above with fellow executive producer Jack Black. Konner, who is best known for his Drunk History series on Funny or Die, also directed Ghost Ghirls.

An exclusive sneak preview of two episodes of Ghost Ghirls was presented at SXSW 2013, featuring hilarious cameo appearances by Dave Grohl, Val Kilmer, Molly Shannon and numerous other celebrities. I thoroughly enjoyed the witty writing and well paced storylines, and look forward to more adventures with the paranormal pair. Following the screening, Lund and Blasucci along with Black and Konner hosted a Q&A as comical as their on-screen performances. The audience was then treated to an intimate performance by Black's band Tenacious D.

See more photos from the event after the jump.

SXSW Review: This Ain't No Mouse Music


With its origin in music and a 20-year history of supporting mainstream and independent film, Austin’s SXSW creates a unique atmosphere where both universes sometimes collide to create splendid works of art. This year’s festival managed to once again create a unique melding of music and film via the documentary This Ain't No Mouse Music! It's a heartfelt movie that tells the story of Chris Strachwitz and his unique music label Arhoolie Records.

Directed by Chris Simon and Maureen GoslingThis Ain't No Mouse Music! spans a period of over 50 years. Strachwitz's story begins in the summer of 1960 when he travelled to Navasota, Texas to record songwriter and guitarist Mance Lipscomb. During the same trip, Chris also met and recorded legendary bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. In order to promote these two legendary musicians, Chris founded his own record label, Arhoolie Records. It was all melody from there.

Austin at SXSW 2013: Andrew Bujalski, 'Computer Chess'


Andrew Bujalski

Austin transplant Andrew Bujalski has been putting audience members in check since the world premiere of his fourth feature Computer Chess (Debbie's dispatch) at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The critically acclaimed, Austin-shot film, about an eccentric group of computer chess programmers who gather at a hotel for a chess tournament in the 1980s, got back to its roots Monday when it screened during SXSW 2013.

Bujalski found most of his merry band of polyester-clad "nerds" through an open casting call for extras, although he already knew local actor/computer wiz Wiley Wiggins (Dazed and Confused), whom he met in Austin back in 1999.

Extras (including Slackerwood contributor Rod Paddock) joined the cast for 10-plus hour days during the summer of 2011 and grew in numbers for the movie's tournament hall scene. With the air conditioning turned off for sound recording purposes, Bujalski says the cramped room "got to smell very bad." But even under these sometimes grueling conditions, the unpaid extras returned to set day after day with the promise of free food and a chance to embody a culture that excites and motivates them.

Although Computer Chess has been met with positive acclaim by SXSW festivalgoers (despite Bujalski's initial thoughts that the movie would "alienate" audiences), most of those who experienced the culture it portrays firsthand have yet to see the film. Computer Chess is scheduled to be released by Kino Lorber late this year. In the meantime, the movie's next screenings will be at the Sarasota Film Festival in early April.

I spoke with Bujalski earlier this week and found out fellow Seguin High School alum Carlyn Hudson was one of the film's co-producers, that there's a Goodwill Computer Museum in Austin, and that I can buy a vintage camera for under $100.

SXSW Review: Don Jon


Don JonJoseph Gordon-Levitt's acting talent is no surprise to people who have followed his career as he made perhaps the smoothest-ever transition from child star to adult actor. His selection of unique and unusual roles has given him a wide body of work to showcase his talents and prevented typecasting. But Levitt is multi-dimensional -- sponsoring a collaborative art project he named HitRecord, he's drawn thousands of print and digital artists, writers and musicians into his cooperative efforts with a goal of eventually producing a crowdsourced feature film.

To that end, he has written, directed, produced and starred in his latest feature, Don Jon. Originally titled Don Jon's Addiction for its Sundance debut, he changed it before the movie's SXSW screening, because he said it gave the audience false expectations that it was entirely about porn addiction.)

Don Jon relates a kind of second coming-of-age story about Levitt's character Jon, who spends his days working out and his nights at the bar with his friends looking for a perfect "10." In spite of his success as the leader of this hunting pack, Jon finds no woman can match the sexual pleasure he receives from himself in front of a computer screen as he surfs internet pornography.

Even when Don meets his perfect girl Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and falls completely in love, she is unable to satisfy him.  Even as she is unable to satisfy his expectations based on porn, he is finding it difficult to meet Barbara's expectations as a white knight based on the romance movies she voraciously watches every night. His situation is complicated by Esther (Julianne Moore), his night-school classmate who takes an interest in him and causes him to reconsider what he wants in a relationship.

Though Don Jon is Levitt's directorial debut, it would be a disservice to describe the film using words like "for a first-time director." Don Jon is a masterful work of writing, directing and acting, period. It is a sexy, funny, and wholly insightful expose of exactly what young people are doing wrong as they build relationships. Levitt understands cinematic language so well he can telegraph his intentions visually without the need to spell them out for the audience.

SXSW 2013: The Celebrity Experience 'At Any Price'


At Any Price red carpet at SXSW

By Kayla Lee

It all started on the red carpet, just before the screening of director Ramin Bahrani's (Goodbye Solo, Chop Shop) new film At Any Price on the last day of SXSW 2013. The stars of the film, Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, graced the streets of downtown Austin with their friendly humor and welcoming smiles. The screening, which took place at the Paramount Theatre, had a great turnout. The crowd was ecstatic when Janet Pierson welcomed the director and stars onto the stage to brief the crowd before the movie started. 

An exhilarating atmosphere filled the room as Quaid and Efron greeted the guests with their down-to-earth swag and demeanor. After their brief introductions, it was time for the show. It was exciting to see Quaid (who sometimes lives in Austin) looking to the crowd for approval throughout the film from the balcony. Judging by the laughter from the audience and his constant smiling down into the crowd, I believe all were pleased. 

SXSW Review: Cheap Thrills


Cheap ThrillsWhat would you do to save your family from homelessness?  How far would you go? Those are the questions Pat Healy must answer in the movie Cheap Thrills, which played at SXSW and has since been acquired for distribution by Drafthouse Films.

Scripted by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga and directed by E.L. Katz, Healy stars as Craig, a writer struggling to make a living for his family as an oil-change mechanic. After the worst day of his life, Craig stops by a local dive bar for a drink he can't afford and meets former high-school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry), who he has not seen in five years.

After reluctantly staying for just one more drink, Craig finds himself in the middle of an unlikely adventure when the two are invited to celebrate with the bar's only other occupants, birthday-girl Violet (Sara Paxton) and her multi-millionaire husband Colin (David Koechner).

What follows is best left for the screen, but it is a disturbing and exhilarating experience. Healy and Embry are fantastic actors and both completely believable as they portray the awkard semi-tension between friends who have grown somewhat apart. That dynamic is obliterated by Koechner. Cheap Thrills couldn't have worked without any of the three, but Koechner is a regular Mephistopheles offering the friends a deal they can't refuse, and a tour through a hell of their own making. This is the kind of easygoing passive-aggressive sadist character Koechner has spent a career perfecting.

One of the most intense films I've ever seen, Cheap Thrills well deserves the SXSW audience award it earned in the Midnighters category. Unlike many schlocky midnight features, this is the kind of movie that should only be shown at midnight.  It's exceptionally graphic, but Katz has mastered the art of don't-show and tell, with a single sound effect that left half the audience jumping completely out of their seats and the rest curled instantaneously into the fetal position.

Unraveling Mondo's Mystique at the Stout /Taylor Opening


Mondo Tyler Stout First Blood

Stallone, Hopkins and Gosling all welcomed visitors on Friday to the latest Mondo gallery event featuring new works by artists Tyler Stout and Ken Taylor. And by "welcomed," I mean their likeness graced the posters on the wall. With this new show, Stout and Taylor have brought Austin a wonderful collection of works that showcases the artists' unique styles that have made them famous. Stout's filled frames were no more prevalent than in his poster for Attack the Block and previously released Django Unchained, while Taylor highlighted his detailed, realistic representations of famous faces in his posters for First Blood and Silence of the Lambs (pictured above). 

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