Shorts Break spotlights Austin and Texas short films that you can watch right here and now ... take a break and take a look!
For the inaugural edition of Shorts Break, I decided to go with puppets. You can't go wrong with puppets (just ask John Oliver), especially if there's a catchy tune too.
Keith & Heath is a short comedy from Andy Young, and if I'd written this two months ago, I would have called him "Austinite Andy Young" ... but he's just moved to Los Angeles after graduating from The University of Texas at Austin. Keith & Heath is his undergraduate thesis film. Young also worked on the Austin-shot feature Intramural. Rumor has it (okay, his Facebook page has it) that he's working for some other former Austinites this summer, the Duplass brothers. Besides being a filmmaker, he also contributes to Moviemaker Magazine (check out his recent interview with Richard Linklater).
It took 12 years to make Boyhood. After seeing it, it took me about 12 seconds to declare it one of the best films ever made.
That's right, gentle Slackerwood readers -- one of the best films ever made.
Read on only if you're fond of superlatives, for this review is laden with them. And Boyhood deserves every one -- it is nothing less than a monumental cinematic achievement, a movie that may redefine what is possible in the world of filmmaking. It is stunning and amazing and mesmerizing, and I could go on and on about it -- and will.
Boyhood's story isn't complicated. It follows a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and his family as he grows from age six to 18. Along the way, Mason experiences the wonders of youth as well as the heartbreaks, while his family tries to remain functional despite its dysfunction. Mason's life story isn't remarkable, but it's wonderfully told and deeply meaningful thanks to writer/director Richard Linklater's terrific script.
Jacob Wilson is a troubled kid. Like many teenagers, he's a rebel without a pause, constantly battling the adults in his life while figuring out who he is. But adolescent battles are far worse for Jacob than for most 13 year olds; his life can be as noisy, chaotic and dangerous as the motocross races he enters for a shot at stardom and a little respect from his family and friends.
Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is at the center of Hellion, Austin filmmaker Kat Candler's gritty new feature based on her 2012 short of the same title. We can't really blame Jacob for being the titular troublemaker. His mother is dead; his alcoholic father, Hollis (Aaron Paul), tries to take care of his sons, but needs to try harder. With his father physically or emotionally absent much of the time, Jacob must look after his little brother, Wes (Deke Garner). He also hangs out with a group of budding delinquents who entertain themselves with criminal mischief around their scruffy working-class neighborhood.
Normally I would not pay much attention to a movie about college guys bonding over sports, especially football. We get more than enough football here in Texas if you are not a fan. But Intramural lured me in -- shot in Austin; directed by Andrew Disney, who showed a nice touch with humor in his previous film Searching for Sonny; written by Bradley Jackson (The Man Who Never Cried). In fact, Jackson pretty much convinced Disney to direct Intramural during Hill Country Film Festival 2012 (after meeting him at Austin Film Festival -- this is why filmmakers should go to film fests), so it felt like a can't-miss as the HCFF closing-night film.
It turns out that Intramural is pretty damn funny, even for middle-age women who don't subscribe to the Texas Cult of Football. The plot is fairly standard -- a bunch of fifth-year college seniors (apparently this is a thing now) decide to get the band, er, intramural team back together for one last hoorah before they graduate. The guys had a championship team in their freshman year that was Marked By Trauma -- yes, it sounds a lot like a combination of Pitch Perfect and The Bad News Bears.
In fact, Intramural is more than aware that it is following in the footsteps of many sports-genre films. One character even gets all Abed (gratuitous Community reference, sorry) about it and makes specific things happen so they will go from underdogs to champions just like teams in sports films -- demanding a training montage, for example.
The characters tend to be types -- even the main character, Caleb (Jake Lacy) is your typical Average Guy In a World of Quirky-to-Bizarre People. His fiancee Vicki (Kate McKinnon) is absolutely insane, and one reason Caleb reunites the intramural football team is to get a breather from her plans and ambitions for him. Then you've got the Nemesis Team, led by evil Dick (Beck Bennett); victim-turned-passionate-coach (Nick Kocher); and the vivacious Cool Chick Who Loves Sports (Nikki Reed). Austin film fans will get a kick out of Sam Eidson as a stereotypical big football lug with an unexpected side talent that had the audience howling.
The cast takes their roles and runs with them. Lacy plays it straight and has a marvelous talent for understated reactions, not an easy thing to accomplish in a sea of over-the-top characters. McKinnon goes entirely in the other direction and makes a completely unpalatable character funny. Bennett, well, best seen to be understood. "Color commentators" Bill and Dan (D.C. Pierson and Jay Pharoah) are a little bit Jay-and-Silent-Bob-stoner like (except they both speak), but are funny enough to get away with it.
This month's list of films available online was all over the place. I was watching ridiculous Craig Robinson comedies and intense documentaries about the struggle to make art. "How the hell do I tie these together?" was the question, as my themes usually come to me quite easily. When I thought back about all of these stories, though, I finally found one kernel within each movie that linked them: topics we don't like to talk about.
What does or does not making something "taboo" is different for each of us. Some are universally obvious, but some might not strike us right away. We have to learn more and try to understand a situation before writing it off as totally unthinkable. Several of the films I watched this month explore topics that are hard to talk about, let alone make a movie about. When you get to know these characters though, you start to see where they are coming from.
I'm not saying they're right, or that they're even heroes. But they're people. They're human, just like you and me. Give their stories a shot this month.
It's time again to start thinking about the Hill Country Film Festival, which runs from April 30-May 4 in Fredericksburg. I just booked my B&B (although is it really a B&B if there's no breakfast? B&NB, perhaps?) and am looking forward to the coziest film festival I've attended.
HCFF is always fun for me because I don't have to rush from venue to venue, the parties are small and people are very friendly, and the audiences always seem to be excited about the movies. The fest is using two theaters this year, but they're not far apart, although it means some tough decision-making is in order.
Austin-shot feature Intramural (pictured at top) is one of the fest's highlights this year. The closing-night film is directed by Andrew Disney, who was at HCFF 2012 with his comedy Searching for Sonny, and written/produced by Bradley Jackson, whose short The Man Who Never Cried screened at HCFF 2012 (both movies on the same day, in fact). Intramural, which debuted at Tribeca Film Festival this week, is about fifth-year college seniors participating in intramural sports.
In the crumbling small town of Jacksonville, known as the Tomato Capital of Texas, a speeding train is coming -- not the frequent trains residents hear almost continually, but a heated mayoral race.
That's the premise of Tomato Republic, a documentary featurette that premiered at the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), where it won a special jury award. Directed by Jenna Jackson, Anthony Jackson and Whitney Graham Carter, Tomato Republic focuses on the mayoral race between three candidates -- incumbent Kenneth Melvin, outspoken restaurateur Rob Gowin, and Kenneth Melvin, the youngest candidate and first African-American to run for the (unpaid) office.
The town's colorful characters are the most engaging part of this film, whether it's the three candidates or the "Rusk Rocket Scientists," who hang out and gossip at local establishments.
I found myself most amused by the filmmaker and interviewees acknowledging the trains running past the town that would often interrupt the filming. When the trains run so often that football games and high-school graduations are impacted, it's ingenious to integrate that frequent occurrence into a documentary.
Filmmaker David Gordon Green has shot two films in Central Texas now (well, three, but only two are out yet), and he gets it. He really does. For both Prince Avalanche and now Joe, he took stories that could be set anywhere and ground them in local rural settings, with characters played by residents who weren't previously professional actors. The most affecting scene in Prince Avalanche was the one in the ruins with Joyce Payne.
In Joe, I felt like I could drive 30 miles and find the unnamed town in which the film was set, with all its characters intact. In such a setting, the lead actors fit in and feel like characters, not stars. Even Nicolas Cage.
Cage plays the title character, whose job is leading a team of laborers to clear a forest for development -- hacking at trees with axes that contain poisonous liquids. He's approached by Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager in a family of drifters squatting in an abandoned shack. Gary wants to join Joe's work gang, needing money to help his family, because his perpetually drunk-and-enraged father (Gary Poulter) can't do it.
It's a simple story when I lay it out that way, but the story isn't the point here, it's the characters and the way they reveal themselves as the movie progresses, especially Joe. He's oddly passive at times, letting matters run their course in their own way. And yet some people and things affect him like dropping a match in gasoline. Don't even ask about the dog in the whorehouse. (That's a sentence I never expected to write.)
For someone who's seen too many hysterically overdone performances from Cage, his work as Joe is amazing, reminding us that when he's well directed in a well-written role, he's a marvel. He manages to portray a man keeping his passions under wraps and even when he does let loose, it's in a way that isn't histrionic. He doesn't dominate the film, either -- Sheridan holds up against him perfectly in their scenes together. But even in scenes with his work gang, or in a small grocery, the other characters get to shine.
After a series of premieres across the country including SXSW and Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), Joe opens today in Austin at the Violet Crown Cinema and Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter. Based on the novel by Larry Brown, this dark drama reveals the raw and often brutal nature of an impoverished family and what happens when a damaged man becomes involved in the family drama.
The leads of Joe are veteran star Nicolas Cage in the title role and Texas' up-and-coming young actor Tye Sheridan (Tree of Life, Mud) as Gary. Cage, Sheridan and Austin-based director David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche) spoke to members of the press at a conference during SXSW last month. I also spoke with several cast members at the recent DIFF premiere.
Green said he was attracted to the script for Joe because it struck him as "a great contemporary western, a genre that I’ve always been drawn to." He was already familiar with Brown's novel, and had even worked on a documentary about the author.
Writing and directing team Nathan and David Zellner (pictured above) have been to film festivals all over the world recently with their latest narrative, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (my review) -- from Sundance in Park City to Berlin, Buenos Aires and Austin for SXSW. This week the film screens at the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF) on Friday, April 11, and Saturday, April 12.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter stars Rinko Kikuchi as a lonely young woman disconnected from her coworkers and the traditional culture of Tokyo. Her obsession with the mythical treasure from the movie Fargo leads her on a journey well outside her comfort zone and knowledge, through the United States.
I spoke with Nathan and David Zellner last month when Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter screened at SXSW Film Festival in Austin. Here's what they had to say about the film.