Don Clinchy's blog

SXSW Review: Terri

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Terri

There may be no crueler creature on Earth than the average teenager. Slaves to conformity even when trying to be nonconformist, one of teenagers' favorite pastimes is making life miserable for anyone who varies too far from the holy teenage trifecta of great looks, great clothes and great social skills.

The unfortunate titular character of coming-of-age indie film Terri has none of these attributes. Obese, forever clad in pajamas and a quiet loner not really by choice, Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is the quintessential tormented, friendless fat kid who retreats into his own world to escape his schoolmates' endless cruelty. Terri, which screened three times at SXSW, is the quirkiest movie I saw at the festival, an entertaining but oddly written story of a misfit teen's struggle to fit into his inhospitable small-town world.

Terri lives in a dirty, cluttered house with his Uncle James (Creed Bratton), himself an oddball with an unnamed, Alzheimer's-like illness that sets him adrift between complete mental clarity and a trancelike fog of unawareness. The two rely completely on each other for companionship and compassion, as they seem to have no family or friends. Terri's main purpose in life is helping James get through the often frightening moments when his disease takes over. (In one instance, Terri catches James staring glassy-eyed while cooking at the stove, completely oblivious to the burning food in front of him.) When James is lucid, he reciprocates by being Terri's gentle mentor and only friendly human contact.

SXSW Review: Fly Away

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Fly Away

The challenges of autism have inspired many great films, from the often-quoted classic Rain Man to the Austin-made Temple Grandin. This isn't surprising, because while autism can be devastating, the successes of autistic people can be very inspirational. Their stories are tailor-made for powerfully dramatic movies.

Fly Away is an example of how autism's challenges can translate into interesting cinema. The low-budget indie, which played SXSW this year, is the story of single mother Jeanne (Beth Broderick) and her teen daughter Mandy (Ashley Rickards), whose severe autism impacts their lives in both expected and unexpected ways. While Fly Away is uneven, it's a mildly entertaining and poignant depiction of living with autism.

Mandy has reached a point in her life where Jeanne must make some difficult decisions about the girl's future. Now an adolescent, Mandy still behaves like a young child at times, throwing tantrums and demanding her way. But she's also becoming a woman who's curious about dating and marriage. She exhibits common autistic behaviors such as fixating on objects, constantly repeating words and phrases, and not listening to others, as if she's in her own world. Jeanne can manage these behaviors, but is less able to handle Mandy's violent outbursts, which get her suspended from her special education program.

SXSW Review: My Sucky Teen Romance

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My Sucky Teen Romance

It bodes well for Austin filmmaker Emily Hagins's new feature, My Sucky Teen Romance, that the current Twilight-fueled vampire craze shows no signs of abating. Last year's installment of the bloodily romantic franchise, Eclipse, grossed more than $300 million, and new Twilight movies will be released this year and next. It seems that tweens and teens (and adults who dare admit it) have not yet had their fill of films and novels about pale, fanged, lovelorn teenagers. (No, I'm not one of those adults. But I think you knew that.)

Of course, I'm sure Hagins has no aspirations that her film will gross $300 million; the teenage filmmaker probably be happy just to find a distributor. But if the wildly enthusiastic reception at My Sucky Teen Romance's raucous world premiere at the Paramount on March 15 is any indication, a lot of Hagins's friends and fans hope the movie will be a smashing success.

SXSW Review: Inside America

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Inside America

The so-called American Dream is little more than a fantasy for many Americans. We're told to pursue an ideal life of finding a good job, owning a home, and living in a happy, stable family situation. But for much of America, this life isn't reality and never will be.

The impossible disconnect between the increasingly mythological American Dream and life's harsh realities is the underlying theme of Inside America, an unfiltered and unflinching look at the lives of six high school students in Brownsville, Texas. A narrative film with the look and feel of a documentary, Inside America (which had its US premiere at SXSW on March 14 at the ACC Vimeo Theater) is jarringly, agonizingly realistic.

Curiously, while Inside America was filmed in Brownsville, it's actually an Austrian movie. Austrian director and writer Barbara Eder spent a year as an exchange student in Brownsville in 1994; her experiences during that time gave her the idea for the movie. She and producer Constanze Schumann spent three weeks in Brownsville in 2006 hanging out with students and gathering material for the script. They returned in 2007 and managed to shoot a terrific movie with a crew of only five people, a miniscule budget (all the actors are volunteers), and limited access to the film's main set, Brownsville's Hanna High School.

SXSW Review: Texas Shorts

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Chainsaw Found Jesus

The SXSW Texas Shorts screening is a diverse and impressive mix of shorts made in Texas or by Texas filmmakers. While the nine films range widely in their subjects and filmmaking styles, many of them are either dark or darkly funny, exploring everything from substance abuse to a murderous automated pool cleaner. Collections of short films can be hit or miss, but I enjoyed all the Texas Shorts selections. The smallish crowd at the screening on March 15 at the Rollins Theatre seemed very appreciative of the films also.

The most interesting of the lot is Chainsaw Found Jesus, directed by Spencer Parsons (I'll Come Running). Described as a "suburban fairy tale," the Austin-made film is a tragicomic story about two fathers and their sons who spend an afternoon together. While the kids entertain themselves with porn magazines and a neighborhood walk, the fathers do a drug deal in the garage and discuss why one of them recently turned to Jesus. The film is very funny and yet slightly bitter, and Sonny Carl Davis adds a bit of indie-film royalty to the mix.

Arguably the most intense film is Drawback, directed by Daniel Rigdon. In this Austin-made short, an impoverished, beaten-down man visits his former girlfriend. From their conversation and several slickly edited flashbacks, we learn that he's lived a hard life of bad choices and bad news; now he's trying to make sense of his fate. Well crafted, empathetic and thoughtful, Drawback is a captivating look at a life no one would envy.

SXSW Review: Yelling to the Sky

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Yelling to the Sky

I'm a longtime fan of films that deal frankly with society's worst problems. Poverty, domestic violence, crime, racism and other harsh realities of the human condition can be the stuff of stunningly powerful cinema.

Unfortunately, the gritty and earnest Yelling to the Sky isn't quite the powerful social statement it aspires to be. While it presents many convincing images of an impoverished and completely dysfunctional family, it suffers from clichéd story elements, uneven pacing and underdeveloped characters.

The film, which screened at the Arbor on the first Saturday of SXSW, is the story of Sweetness O'Hara (Zoë Kravitz), a Queens teenager doing her best to survive in her beaten-down world. Her father, Gordon (Jason Clarke) is a violent, manic depressive alcoholic who's often AWOL from the household. His wife, Lorene (Yolanda Ross) suffers from depression and other vague ailments that leave her barely able to function. Sweetness's older sister, Ola (Antonique Smith) is pregnant by an abusive loser.

SXSW Review: Better This World

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Better This World

I sometimes find it hard to review politically charged documentaries. Like many critics, I don't limit my opining just to film; discussing political and social issues is one of my favorite pastimes. (My Facebook friends know this all too well.) When the worlds of film and politics intersect in documentaries, it can be a struggle to separate my opinions about a movie and its subject matter.

Better This World is such a film, a fascinating but disheartening documentary about two young Austin activists, Brad Crowder and David McKay, who were charged with domestic terrorism while protesting at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. While I greatly admire the film (which had its world premiere on March 12 at the Vimeo Theater and screened again on March 14 at the Alamo South Lamar), I found the story it tells completely infuriating.

Crowder and McKay are longtime friends who grew up together in Midland and moved to Austin in their early twenties. In 2008, they attended an event held by the RNC Welcoming Committee, a Minnesota group that was recruiting activists to "shut down" the Republican National Convention by protesting and blocking streets.

SXSW Review: Five Time Champion

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Five Time Champion

Deciding which movies to see at film festivals can be a crap shoot. Some incessantly hyped films with great pedigrees can be enormously disappointing. On the other hand, some largely unpublicized films don't come across well in trailers and synopses, so you skip them, only to hear later that you missed a truly great time at the movies. Still others seem worth a look, so you give them a chance and discover that they are, well, worth a look, but not memorable.

And then there are rare indie gems like Five Time Champion that remind you why you go to film festivals.

Be prepared for a gushing review of this stellar film, one of the best I've seen in ages. Oh, if only all movies were such a pleasure to review; the greatest challenge in reviewing Five Time Champion, which had its world premiere at the Paramount on March 12, may be finding enough superlatives to describe its many charms without being repetitive.

Set and filmed in Austin and Smithville, Texas, Five Time Champion is equal parts teen romance, coming of age story and commentary about the complicated nature of relationships at every stage in life. The protagonist is 13-ish Julius (Ryan Akin), a smart, scientifically gifted kid who's in the awkward throes of sexual exploration with his girlfriend, Shiley (Noell Coet). Complicating matters are the obvious charms of his classmate Teena (Gabi Walker), who's ready to take Shiley's place at the first available opportunity. Further complicating matters is Julius's general ambivalence toward sex; he wonders if he's gay, especially since his long-gone father, Harold (Robert Longstreet), is rumored to have left his mother for another man. Julius's confusion about his own sexual orientation leads to horrifying self-destructive behavior.

TAMI Flashback: Playing in Traffic

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The Traffic Problem

This article is the fifth in a Slackerwood series about the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) video library.

If you lament how Austin has changed over the years -- and what Real Austinite doesn't? -- at least you can rest assured that one thing about Austin hasn't changed in decades and probably never will: a lot of Austinites are very bad drivers.

According to the videos featured in this article, driving in Austin has long been a be-careful-out-there proposition. Having driven Austin's highways and byways since the 1980s, I'd have to agree.

Consider Progress Report Austin -- The Traffic Problem, a 1963 installment of a series of TV programs about life in our fair city. From its opening credits -- set against a backdrop of a swiftly moving, upper-deckless I-35 -- The Traffic Problem reminds us that reckless driving is nothing new in Austin. The Traffic Problem isn't great television; frankly, it's rather lousy television, full of interchangeable talking heads droning endlessly about traffic safety statistics, enforcement and court procedures. (Apparently, all early Sixties-era Austin traffic safety officials were balding, boringly earnest middle-aged white guys wearing horn-rimmed glasses.) But interspersed with the droning are many wonderful shots of Austin roads and landmarks, including the old Brackenridge Hospital building that was torn down in the 1970s.

Review: Barney's Version

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Barney's Version

Although no one would argue that Barney Panofsky is a good role model, he's undeniably entertaining.

Hard drinking, completely self absorbed and proudly politically incorrect, Barney (Paul Giamatti) is the protagonist of Barney's Version, a dark, wry and witty study of a life lived fully, if not quite ethically. If creativity and pithy sarcasm are Barney's strong suits, honesty and empathy for others are not; nor are fidelity, sobriety or high idealism. Frankly, he's just short of being a complete SOB.

Why, then, do we find ourselves almost rooting for him now and then? Because thanks to a great script and the even greater Giamatti, Barney transforms SOBism into a high art.

Based on the acclaimed Mordecai Richler novel of the same title, Barney's Version opens as 65-year-old television producer Barney reflects on his colorful and often sordid life. The story is told largely in flashbacks spanning four decades, chronicling Barney's young adulthood in Rome and Montreal in the 1970s, his slightly shady financial schemes, three marriages, and later life of parenthood and career doldrums.

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