Oh my god, Andrew Bujalski has sold out. The filmmaker with a reputation for populating his indies with non-actors has brought us a film that stars, yes, stars Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders. I don't think I saw a single indie filmmaker in the cast. And it kind of has a plot! And who knows how much money it cost -- he didn't even need to crowdfund. I mean, really, total sellout.
Except that's not the case at all. Results is very much of a piece with Bujalski's previous films, from Mutual Appreciation to Computer Chess. The Austin writer-director's insightfulness about the minutiae of everyday relationships is front and center. The "stars" play characters who work at a gym -- naturally portraying beautiful people without upsetting the balance of the cast.
Danny (Kevin Corrigan) first appears onscreen after his wife locks him out of their New York apartment. Shortly thereafter, we encounter him in an Austin gym, determined to get into shape for reasons he cannot clearly articulate to the gym's owner, Trevor (Pearce). Trevor assigns Kat (Smulders), a demanding and no-nonsense trainer, to work with Danny at his home. It's obvious Danny would like Kat in his life for more than just teaching him ab exercises, though.
Austin filmmaker Bob Byington likes to set his films in an environment many of us recognize and understand: the featureless, tidy, chain-populated world of the lower-rent suburbs. His characters often work thankless jobs that actually exist in the real world, often in food service. They live in dumpy rentals, they drive cheap or decrepit cars. Apart from the occasional smartphone or computer, the movies could be set in any time in the past few decades and in any American suburb or small city.
And it's within these almost generic settings that Byington brings us movies about people (young men, generally) who change their lives in small but significant ways -- unexpected events leading to improbable effects. It's a slightly twisted world, but ultimately grounded by mundane surroundings.
In Byington's latest movie, 7 Chinese Brothers, slacker Larry (Jason Schwartzman) is fired from a Buca di Beppo after his bosses catch him enjoying the restaurant's booze. They accuse him of hoarding tips as well, although we never find out whether this is actually true.
KRISHA is why we go to film festivals.
In a world full of great films that are very much alike -- even indie movies at festivals -- KRISHA rises above the been-there-seen-that noise with a truly unique style and vision. Trey Edward Shults' odd but arresting drama is a thoroughly original twist on a well-worn genre, the family holiday film.
KRISHA rose far enough above the noise at this year's SXSW Film Festival to take home the Narrative Feature Competition Grand Jury Award. Those who had the foresight and good sense to attend the film's world premiere at SXSW (which did not sell out, but should have) know it certainly deserves the honor.
Based on Shults' short film of the same title, which won the Narrative Short Special Jury Award at SXSW 2014, KRISHA is a story many of us know too well. The film's titular character arrives at a family Thanksgiving gathering after an absence of more than 10 years. Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is a gloriously dysfunctional middle-aged woman who barely keeps it together (and frequently doesn't) while battling various inner demons.
You just can't live in Texas/If you don't have a lot of soul
-- Doug Sahm, "At the Crossroads"
Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove is a groove all right, and a great tribute to one of Texas' greatest musicians.
Doug Sahm gave us "She's About a Mover" and "Mendocino" -- along with a zillion other songs -- and was an influential songwriter and performer who reinvented himself musically many times. He played in country bands as a child, cranked out Sixties pop songs with the Sir Douglas Quintet, turned psychedelic in San Francisco, helped put Austin's cosmic cowboys on the map in the Seventies, and ultimately returned to his San Antonio Tex-Mex roots with the Texas Tornadoes in the Nineties. Sahm wasn't just able to play any form of indigenous Texas music; he was Texas music.
Sir Doug celebrates all of Sahm's musical incarnations. Kicking off with a killer 1976 Austin City Limits performance of "She's About a Mover," the documentary then takes us back to Sahm's days as a child prodigy playing steel guitar in San Antonio clubs. (Known as Little Doug Sahm, he played with Hank Williams and other greats before he was a teenager.)
Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas, a collection of six short films made in the Austin area in the early Eighties, is a great flashback to the early days of Austin's film scene.
A great flashback -- but not necessarily a collection of great films. They're intriguing cinematic artifacts made by filmmakers with obvious talent, but most of them are crudely made and may appeal only to those who share the filmmakers' punk/new wave sensibilities.
Demme presented the movies in a program at the Collective of Living Cinema in New York City in October 1981 after seeing them on a previous visit to Austin. The program earned a lot of great press -- but despite critical success and Demme's enthusiastic cheerleading, the films suffered the fate of most short films, being mostly forgotten outside a cult following of devoted fans and film history buffs.
But thanks to SXSW co-founder Louis Black (who was involved with several of the films), the surviving filmmakers and a team of film restorers, the six films in Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas are back, lovingly restored, headed for the film-festival circuit and soon to be released on home video from The University of Texas Press.
Elizabeth "Lizzie" Velasquez is 25 years old and weighs 58 pounds. Velasquez, a native Austin and Texas State University alumna, was born with a rare, unnamed syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight. As a child, she was bullied in school for her appearance and later, as a teenager, was bullied online where she found a YouTube video that called her "The World's Ugliest Woman."
A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story, which premiered at SXSW this week, shows Velasquez's physical and emotional journey from bullying victim to anti-bullying activist. The documentary paints a portrait of Velasquez using stories from friends and family and leading up to her 2013 multi-million-viewed TEDxAustin talk. She garnered acclaim from this motivational talk and was invited to speak about her experiences on television shows such as The View, and has been interviewed by the Associated Press, among other publications. These experiences prompted her to lobby on Capitol Hill for the first federal anti-bullying bill.
Velasquez was unable to answer questions by phone or in person because of health issues but did so via email instead.
Slackerwood: When and how were you approached with the idea for the documentary?
Lizzie Velasquez: Sara Bordo, the director and producer of my film, called me in February of 2014 after my TEDxAustinWomen talk went viral. Sara, who also directed the TEDx event, told me she had a wild idea to do a documentary with me to help put a spotlight on my story as well as my anti-bullying efforts.
When I think of Hannah Fidell's style as a filmmaker, I'm reminded of something that Peter Bogdanovich once told a class I took in film school. He said that he believed that films should tell a story in the simplest way. To achieve this, you shouldn't let your audience feel like they're watching something on a screen, but instead be transported to the moments your characters are encountering as if you're right there next to them. This was my constant thought while watching Fidell's latest movie, 6 Years.
The SXSW veteran premiered her second feature this past weekend, just two years after the debut of her critically-acclaimed film A Teacher. Having seen A Teacher back in 2013, I was eager to find out how this latest piece would grab me. A first feature is a great mountain to climb, but a second feature is a different kind of beast. It's when filmmakers start to show their trends, their consistencies and what makes them stand out as storytellers.
The story focuses on the crumbling relationship between college students Dan (Ben Rosenfield) and Mel (Taissa Farmiga). Set in our hometown of Austin, Dan and Mel have a perfectly content relationship until some big life changes start to shift their world views. It feels like a story that's happened to most of us: trying to deal with the plans you make versus the plans life initially has in store for you. It's heartbreaking yet satisfactory to see this kind of story told so well on screen.
Sometimes peace is purchased with violence.
-- Salt Lake County Sheriff James Winder, in Peace Officer
William "Dub" Lawrence is the perfect documentary subject. After a long career in law enforcement, he has many stories to tell -- he helped break the Ted Bundy case as a rookie cop, and the failings of criminal justice he saw on the beat inspired his successful run for Sheriff of Davis County, Utah in 1974. Now semi-retired, he works as a private investigator and, curiously, also repairs water and sewage pumps. In his spare time, he flies his private plane.
He's also spent much of his spare time investigating a tragic episode in his life, one that inspired the enraging new documentary Peace Officer: In 2008, the SWAT team he established 30 years earlier killed his son-in-law, Brian Wood, during a standoff at Wood's house.
After physically abusing his wife, Wood retreated to the cab of his pickup and was threatening to kill himself. He was calm and threatened no one else, but when police arrived, the incident quickly escalated as dozens of officers from multiple SWAT teams surrounded the house. They arrived in armored vehicles and even a helicopter, shot out the truck's windows, and the event became a media circus. After many hours, the standoff ended in mayhem -- and Wood ended up dead. The police claimed he committed suicide.
The eminent actor appears in almost every scene of Green's latest film, Manglehorn, giving Pacino plenty of time to explore the grumpy oddball A.J. Manglehorn's every mood and motivation. Rarely are an actor and role so well matched, as Pacino plays A.J. with a perfect mix of shopworn sadness, vulnerability and simmering anger. (Known for his louder performances --- Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon and Tony Montana in Scarface are only two among many -- Pacino reminds us that he has the range to play much quieter and more sensitive types.)
A.J. is the central figure in a story of loss and regret. An aging locksmith, he spends lonely days in his cluttered shop with few customers. Long divorced, he spends equally lonely nights with his cat. His self-absorbed son, Jacob (Chris Messina), has no time for him, and he rarely sees his granddaughter, Kylie (Skylar Gasper).
In his lonelier moments -- there are many -- A.J. obsesses about a lost love, Clara (Natalie Wilemon). She wasn't his wife and their relationship ended long ago, but Manglehorn tells us little more about her. Whoever Clara is, A.J. remains passionately in love with her; he still writes her letters.
SXSW Film makes international news with A-list stars and big premieres, but some of the best films come in small packages. Eighty-seven short film titles have been announced -- not counting the music videos -- for this year's fest. Here is just a taste of some of the spectacular shorts from the program.
Animated Shorts (screening info)
All Your Favorite Shows!
This is a stunning and seamless blend of animation, live action and millisecond clips and audio from scores of recognizable hit films that looks like it must have taken decades of work to put together. Not just an amazing visual piece, it includes sound design and storytelling of equal quality. This packs more action into 5 minutes than most features manage in 2 hours.
With a tasty treat that reminds us film folk the root of SXSW has always been music, Julian Petschek takes "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" to the heights of its full hip-hop potential. Flashy and funny, this music video sets a catchy beat against vocals and lyrics by Katrina Recto AKA Kat Knoc, Jacob Gibson AKA C.U.B. and DJ Petroleum Jelly.
Documentary Shorts 1 (screening info)
ESPN isn't only just football, basketball, and baseball. This documentary directed by Gabe Spitzer tells the amazing story -- in her own words -- of Joy Johnson, who began running marathons after retirement and ran the New York marathon 25 times. An inspirational, beautiful and lasting legacy.