Don Clinchy's blog

TAMI Flashback: A Trio of TEA

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Toward a Better Tomorrow

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

While poking around in the TAMI library for videos to feature in this article, I found three very interesting bits of Austin nostalgia from an unlikely source: the Texas Education Agency (TEA), which oversees the state's public education system. These videos are great examples of vintage state agency films, with high-quality production values, beautiful soundtracks and some surprising connections to Austin's fledgling film and music industries. (Then again, given the quality of these films, maybe these connections are not so surprising.)

The New American Schoolhouse is an early 1970s look at the career and technical programs the TEA's Department of Occupational Education and Technology offered to high-school students. Shot in Austin and Ft. Worth, it spotlights examples of career education in graphic arts, health care, retail, manufacturing, data processing and other vocations. (Remember data processing? I hear it was a career with a future.) Beyond showing these examples, the film promotes the then-novel idea that to prepare students for life after graduation, their education must combine classroom and real-world learning.

Like many films from this era, The New American Schoolhouse presents the expected parade of computer -- er, data processing -- equipment the size of refrigerators, hairdos nearly as large, yacht-sized American sedans, mini-dresses, striped sport coats, and hideous pantsuits that women now swear they never wore. (Such denial is pointless; there is plenty of photographic evidence of these fashion faux pas.) The film also has pleasantly artsy, film-schoolish visuals, from sometimes unflattering close-ups of students' faces to sweeping shots of urban vistas. The opening sequence's birds-eye view of downtown Austin is fascinating, as the camera pans over St. Mary Cathedral, City National Bank, I-35, and the hills west of Austin. One interesting scene was filmed at the Austin American-Statesman.

Review and Panel: For the Love of Movies

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For the Love of Movies posterAn unsettling aspect of Gerald Peary's 2009 documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism is that so many of the critics interviewed are identified as "ex-critics" of print media such as The New York Times.

Yeah, things aren't so rosy for film critics these days, at least for critics seeking paychecks from traditional newspapers and magazines. Film criticism jobs are disappearing as fast as the classified advertising that once funded them. In the face of falling revenues and online competition, periodicals are jettisoning everything from foreign news bureaus to op-ed columnists to local arts coverage.

But all is not hopeless, as For the Love of Movies tells us. Film critics are adapting to the brave new media world, and as long they remain passionate about movies, the century-old tradition of reviewing them will continue.

The future of film criticism was no doubt on everyone's mind at a February 10 screening of For the Love of Movies presented by the Austin Film Society at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. Peary was in attendance for a brief post-screening Q&A, followed by a panel discussion moderated by UT professor Thomas Schatz and featuring local critics Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle, Charles Ealy of the Austin American Statesman, Slackerwood's own Jette Kernion, and Austin Film Critics Association founder and president Cole Dabney.

Review: Gnomeo and Juliet

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Gnomeo and Juliet

Midway through Gnomeo and Juliet is the line, "I wish I could quit you."

Ahem. This probably is a first for an animated family film: a slightly altered quotation of the most famous line in Brokeback Mountain.

Yeah, I know: Wink, wink -- here's yet another slightly risqué adult pop cultural reference designed to entertain us grownups while sailing harmlessly over the kiddos' heads. Such references are now fundamental to the animated family movie formula, invariably a mix of endless 3D action sequences, ADD-friendly bits of dialogue, a chaste romance that blossoms to a soundtrack of insipid pop songs, and adult-oriented references to The Matrix, Scarface and/or CSI. Oh yeah -- there also may be a cutesy dancing thing at the end.

Sometimes this formula works smashingly well, as in the Toy Story franchise. But it's hit or miss in Gnomeo & Juliet, a frenetic, too-cute tale very loosely based (emphasis on very loosely) on Shakespeare's tragic love story.

A Night of Texas Filmmakers' Early Shorts

Bottle Rocket short

Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and other famed Texas filmmakers may be household names now. But like most filmmakers, they launched their careers with low-budget, largely unseen short films.

Despite the later success of these Texas cinematic giants, their early works remain relatively obscure and are rarely screened. So, if you're a Texas movie buff like me, you won't want to miss the upcoming "Texas Legends, Before They Were Legends" program, which presents a collection of first short films from some of Texas' most successful and cherished filmmakers. Presented by the Texas Independent Film Network, Austin Film Society and Screen Door Film, the program includes the following films:

  • Bottle Rocket (1992), by Wes Anderson. This short (pictured at right) is the basis for the full-length feature version of Bottle Rocket, released four years later.
  • Styx (1976), by Jan Krawitz. This documentary is an impressionistic view of the Philadelphia subway system.
  • Woodshock (1985), by Richard Linklater. This documentary captures the mayhem of the 1985 Woodshock Music Festival in Dripping Springs.

Review: Another Year

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Another Year

I'm a longtime fan of director Mike Leigh. From Naked to Happy-Go-Lucky, his films are completely naturalistic, populated with entirely human characters and emotionally powerful.

That said, I'm not quite a fan of Leigh's latest work, Another Year. Yes, it's the sort of high-quality cinema we expect from Leigh, a thoughtful and thoroughly believable collection of character studies with plenty to say about how we view our lives, ourselves and each other. But while Another Year is unquestionably well made, it's so relentlessly drab and dour that I just couldn't bring myself to like it.

The movie centers on Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), middle-aged Londoners who have enjoyed many years of marital bliss, personal fulfillment and professional success. However, most of their family and friends are anything but content with their lives. From their lonely son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), to their lonelier, hard-drinking friend Mary (Lesley Manville), Tom and Gerri find themselves surrounded by unhappiness, disappointment and spiritual ennui.

DVD Review: Machete

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Machete videoFans of Machete now can see Robert Rodriguez's brilliantly overdone homage to exploitation flicks on the small screen, and it loses none of its gleefully gory and sexy charm in the translation. The new Machete Blu-ray captures every severed limb, explosion and naked female body part in glorious HD video and superb sound. (If you don't have a Blu-ray player, you can enjoy Machete's brand of heartwarming family entertainment on DVD.)

For an exploitation film, Machete has a surprisingly complex and coherent plot, not that this matters terribly much amid all the mayhem. Set in Austin, south Texas and Mexico, the story follows Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo), an ex-Federale turned immigrant day laborer hired by sinister political operative Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate a Texas state senator, John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro).

Meanwhile, immigration agent Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba) stakes out taco truck owner Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), the suspected head of The Network, an organization that helps Mexican immigrants cross the border and find jobs. The two storylines intersect when Machete befriends Luz at a day labor site, and Rivera suspects he is part of The Network also.

Things go horribly wrong during the assassination attempt, and Machete is the victim of a double cross. He finds himself on the run from several parties, including the cops, Rivera, Booth and Machete's old nemesis, a Mexican drug lord named Torrez (a perfectly miscast Steven Seagal). Vowing revenge on those who double crossed him, Machete sets out to give them their bloody comeuppance with the help of Luz, Rivera and Machete's brother, a well-armed priest named Padre (Cheech Marin).

This synopsis leaves out plenty of details involving a vigilante group, political corruption, shifting alliances, incriminating videos, drug smuggling, impressive weapons caches, lesbian incest, scores of dead bodies, way-cool lowriders and online porn, but to say more would spoil some of the surprises and all of the fun. It suffices to say that Machete delivers most every flavor of fu, all presented with great wit and style.

TAMI Flashback: 'Automobile Thefts' and 'No Chance'

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Allandale Village

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

The classic noir thriller The Naked City ends with a memorable line: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them."

There aren't quite as many stories in the River City, but Austin has plenty of crime nonetheless. And crime in Austin is the subject of two priceless TAMI videos featured in this article, Automobile Thefts -- A Police Training Aid and the provocatively titled No Chance.

Made in Austin c. 1953, Automobile Thefts is exactly the sort of mundane but now fascinating film that makes TAMI so special. Produced by the National Automobile Theft Bureau and the Texas Department of Public Safety, it's a training aid to help law enforcement more effectively combat car thieves. Thrilling it's not; its dry explanations of theft techniques and investigative procedures aren't exactly gripping entertainment. But like so many TAMI videos, Automobile Thefts captures mid-century life like no narrative film ever could.

Review: Blue Valentine

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Blue Valentine

A five-word line of dialogue near the end of Blue Valentine sums up the film's central relationship. It is a line said with resignation and mild disgust: "Ah...you must be Dean."

A coworker of the film's lead female character, Cindy (Michelle Williams), utters the line when Cindy's drunk and agitated husband Dean (Ryan Gosling) arrives at Cindy's workplace to confront her about their latest marital meltdown. From the coworker's flat and frustrated tone, it's obvious that Cindy and Dean's marriage from hell is no secret, and Dean is taking most of the blame.

But laying all the blame on Dean isn't quite fair, and we know why by this point in Blue Valentine. A brutally honest, harrowingly real and strikingly nuanced look at an unlikely relationship that was probably DOA from the start, Blue Valentine wags a finger at both Cindy and Dean for the bad choices they've made. But it also explains with great empathy what motivated those choices.

2010 in Review: Don's Top 10 and Other Lists

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Machete

Here are my top 10 and other notable films from last year. To be eligible for my list, a movie had to release in 2010 and screen in Austin in 2010 also. (Some well reviewed 2010 releases, such as Blue Valentine, have not yet been released in Austin.)

1. The Social Network
No matter how you feel about Facebook (I love it enough to marry it), this flawlessly crafted yarn about the birth of the world's largest social network is the must-see film of 2010. With its snappy, snarky Aaron Sorkin script and zippy David Fincher direction, The Social Network is a razor-sharp blend of legal thriller, dark comedy, cautionary tale and social commentary. In a crowded field of strong contenders for best film, I give The Social Network the nod because of its relevance to our increasingly hyperconnected times. (Jette's review)
How to see it? Still playing at Regal Metropolitan this week. Will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on January 11.

2. Black Swan
A harrowing psychothriller about artistic rivalry and obsession with perfection, Black Swan is the year's most visually stunning film. Natalie Portman gives the best performance of her career as the neurotic ballerina Nina Sayers, the most memorable cinematic psychochick in many years. Mila Kunis is also captivating as Nina's frenemy and rival, Lily. (Let the record show that while Black Swan's schwangerrific ballerina-on-ballerina action definitely got the attention of my inner heterosexual guy, it in no way influenced my overall opinion of the film. Black Swan is a terrific piece of cinema in every way.) (Jenn's review)
How to see it? Still playing in Austin theaters.

Review: Casino Jack

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Casino Jack

Jack Abramoff isn't known as a funny guy, and his story -- an infuriating tale of fraud and political corruption -- isn't funny, either. The former high-rolling lobbyist arguably is one of America's most hated public figures, and his scandalous tenure as a Washington power player only deepened the American public's cynicism about politics.

Given Abramoff's notoriety, mining his story for darkly comic gold is risky. And taking this risk has only a modest payoff in Casino Jack, a stylish and busy movie that's sometimes very funny but isn't quite the smart political satire it could have been.

Casino Jack, which first screened in town on Austin Film Festival's closing night in partnership with The Texas Observer, is a reasonably accurate portrayal of Abramoff's money-fueled machinations, in least in the general sense if not in some of the details. The longtime political operative (and onetime film producer who sullied many a multiplex with the Dolph Lundgren dreckfest Red Scorpion) became an über-lobbyist in the mid 1990s, using his ties to Tom DeLay and other powerful Republicans to help pass business-friendly legislation for his clients. His client list included the usual corporate conglomerates, but also governments such as The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and several Indian tribes with gambling interests.

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