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SXSW Review: Before I Disappear


Before I Disappear

Shawn Christensen's 2012 short film Curfew was a film-festival darling, winning 15 awards including a 2013 Oscar. I haven't seen Curfew, but certainly want to if it's as good as the feature-length version of the same story, Before I Disappear.

Christensen's debut feature is quirky, but I mean that in a good way. A genre-bending mix of family drama, thriller, love story and surreal fantasy, Before I Disappear is the dark story of Richie (Christensen), a broke and depressed drug addict adrift in New York City. He spends his time hanging out in seedy clubs and earning a meager living as a janitor. His job only compounds his depression when he cleans a restroom and finds the body of an overdose victim, a beautiful woman who reminds him of his dead girlfriend.

One afternoon, a phone call interrupts Richie's halfhearted attempt to kill himself. Long estranged from his family, he's surprised that the call is from his wealthy and far more functional sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), who asks him to take care of her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), for a few hours after school. A series of bizarre events keeps Maggie busy all night and forces Richie and Sophia to spend the night wandering the streets of New York and visiting Richie's favorite haunts. (They're not places any sane person would take a child.)

SXSW Review: Two Step


Two Step

For decades, law enforcement agencies have been warning people of a common phone scam: An elderly person receives a phone call from someone pretending to be the person's grandchild or other family member. The caller says he's desperate for money, and asks the victim to deposit money in a bank account. This scam is often successful; the elderly victims, feeling lonely and forgotten, want to help their family members and are easily conned.

Normally, the victims lose money but never meet the con artists or suffer any physical harm. But in the stylish thriller Two Step, the scam turns deadly and personal.

In the Austin-made film, career criminal Webb (James Landry Hébert) is part of ring of phone scammers, making his calls from prison. When he's released, he's ready to continue his criminal ways and reunite with his girlfriend and fellow scammer, Amy (Ashley Spillers). But the reunion doesn't go as planned. Fed up with Webb's physical and emotional abuse, Amy leaves him the minute he returns home, taking their ill-gotten cash with her. Even worse, he owes $10,000 to the ringleader, Duane (Jason Douglas), who banishes him from the ring for his erratic and violent ways. But Webb is determined to repay the money and make amends with his boss.

SXSW Review: For Those in Peril


For Those in Peril

For all the haunting images in For Those in Peril, the film's most haunting moment isn't a visual, but a song sung by a grieving woman.

The song is "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," an achingly beautiful love song that sounds achingly sad in the movie. The singer is Cathy (Kate Dickie), a weary mother who has lost a son and fears she may lose another. What should be a good time singing karaoke in a pub turns bitter when Cathy is overcome with emotion and can't finish the song. It's a devastating scene in For Those in Peril, a film full of devastating scenes.

Cathy's son Michael (Jordan Young) died along with four crewmates in a tragic fishing boat accident. The sole survivor is Michael's younger brother, Aaron (George MacKay), who suffers crippling survivor's guilt. He gets no sympathy from the residents of the tiny Scottish fishing village where he lives; in a culture steeped in seafaring folklore and superstition, they blame Aaron for the accident, consider his presence bad luck and ostracize him with unbearable cruelty.

SXSW Review: Thank You a Lot


Thank You a Lot

-- James Hand in Thank You a Lot, when asked what makes a good songwriter

In a single word, the fictional musician James Hand -- played by the real musician James Hand -- sums up a central theme of Thank You a Lot.

The poignant and perceptive film by Austin filmmaker Matt Muir explores many forms of failure: in parenthood, family relationships and artistic fulfillment. But it's also a hopeful film about redemption.

At the center of Thank You a Lot is Jack Hand (Blake DeLong), a bottom-feeding hustler and music manager whose only remaining clients are the hapless indie rock band The Wintermen and struggling hip-hop artist Desmond D (Jeffery Da'Shade Johnson). Jack spends his days trolling Austin's music scene for any deal he can work to his advantage; petty fraud and extortion are his stock in trade, and it's obvious his ethical compass broke long ago.

TAMI Flashback: Be Careful, Kids!


Are You Listening?

This article is the sixth in Slackerwood's second series about the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) video library. For an overview of the TAMI site, refer to this article in the first series.

This month's TAMI Flashback installment features three short films for children. But grown-ups may find them entertaining also, because they're so wonderfully odd.

For TAMI fans of a certain age -- middle age, that is -- Mission Possible: Bike Safety may evoke childhood memories of cruising the neighborhood on a way-cool Schwinn Sting-Ray. Actually, cruising is the wrong word -- in that era, any self-respecting kid rode like a bat out of hell. Traffic laws were for cars, right? And bicycle helmets were 20 years away. It's a wonder any of us survived into adulthood.

A goofy imitation of the Mission: Impossible TV series, Mission Possible: Bike Safety is a well intentioned but probably pointless attempt to teach kids about bicycle safety. Shot in Austin in 1975, the film features a Mission: Impossible-style team of careful, law-abiding kids who must teach bike safety to two reckless children, Dirty Larry and Careless Carol. Larry (whose face is actually dirty) and Carol are the terrors of Austin's Allandale Neighborhood and the Village Shopping Center on Anderson Lane, running stop signs on their battered bikes and nearly mowing down pedestrians.

Lone Star Cinema: Screen Door Jesus


Screen Door Jesus

According to the faithful, images of Jesus have appeared on many objects -- tortillas, turtles and moldy drywall, to name a few. One alleged appearance happened in 1969 in Port Neches, Texas, where followers of the J-man claimed to see his likeness on the screen door of a house. The image attracted hordes of true believers and curiosity seekers until the owner tired of the crowds and removed the door.

This bit of Southeast Texas lore inspired Port Neches native Christopher Cooke to write the acclaimed anthology Screen Door Jesus & Other Stories, which filmmaker Kirk Davis adapted for his debut feature Screen Door Jesus. The 2003 film is an uneven but largely accurate look at religion in a small East Texas town.

Screen Door Jesus weaves many loosely related story lines into a narrative about religious fervor and religious doubt. The film's central story involves Mother Harper (Cynthia Dorn), who sees Jesus on the screen door of her home. Her front yard becomes a Mecca of sorts for local Christians, dozens of whom spend day after day praying before the image.

TAMI Flashback: Juvenile Delinquency Isn't Funny, But These Videos Are


The Lonely Ones

This article is the fifth in Slackerwood's second series about the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) video library. For an overview of the TAMI site, refer to this article in the first series.

Half a century ago, juvenile delinquency in Texas may have been less of a problem than it is today. But the TAMI videos featured in this article -- two very different made-for-TV films with a common theme -- are reminders that juvenile crime always has been a serious matter.

Made in 1962, Juvenile Delinquency... and You is the fourth installment of KTBC-TV's Progress Report Austin series, a public affairs program about issues affecting the River City. Narrated by Bonner McLane of the Winn-McLane advertising agency, Juvenile Delinquency... and You addresses the causes of and possible solutions to delinquency, focusing on how parents and the community can work together to solve the problem. (McLane's young children appear at the beginning and end of the video. We'll assume they didn't grow up to be delinquents.)

Juvenile Delinquency... and You follows the standard, rather dry Progress Report Austin format -- a series of talking heads (all middle-aged white men, or course) droning on about the issue, interwoven with shots of Austinites and Austin landmarks. This episode isn't riveting television (there aren't even any landmarks) and would be forgettable if not for its historical significance: Two of the interviewees are Judge J. Harris Gardner and Judge Charles O. Betts, after whom Austin's Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center is named. The then-new facility was part of the transition to a more enlightened approach to juvenile justice in Austin, with an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than just incarceration.

Lone Star Cinema: D.O.A.



Had the stylish thriller D.O.A. been more plausible, it might be more than a footnote in the history of Austin film.

Released in 1988, the murder mystery had much promise. After all, it was a loose remake of an iconic Fifties whodunit of the same title. Its leads were Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, two sexy Hollywood darlings on the verge of megastardom. At the helm were Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, co-directors of the innovative, critically acclaimed and quintessentially Eighties TV series The Max Headroom Show.

But for all its potential, the movie D.O.A. is mostly forgettable mix of crime thriller clichés and farfetched plotting. It's a watchable bit of neo-noir, but nothing more.

2013 in Review: Don's Top Ten and Other Lists


Inside Llewyn Davis

Editor's note: Welcome to Slackerwood's 2013 in Review series. As in previous years, we aren't just posting standard Top 10 lists but also will highlight other aspects of 2013 that stood out for us. Keep an eye out all month for these features. We're kicking off with Don's annual Top Ten.

Here are my top ten and other notable films from last year. To be eligible for my lists, a movie had to release in the U.S. in 2013 and screen in Austin in 2013 also. Some well-reviewed 2013 releases have not yet screened in Austin.

10. 12 Years a Slave
Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841, 12 Years a Slave is a brutally realistic look -- as brutal as any in film history -- at slavery in the American South. The violence is repellant, but 12 Years a Slave's impact is unforgettable. Chiwetel Ejiofor is outstanding as Northrup, as is the entire cast. (Elizabeth's review)

9. Fruitvale Station
Another true story of racism and gross injustice, Fruitvale Station follows 22-year-old Bay Area resident Oscar Grant on the last day of 2008, as he crosses paths with friends and family before his tragic encounter with police in the Fruitvale BART station late that night. Writer and director Ryan Coogler's terrific first feature is an enraging story of an innocent man whose fate provoked national outrage. (Debbie's review)

Review: American Hustle


American Hustle

The Abscam sting operation is an unlikely inspiration for a film.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the bizarre public corruption investigation (it involved an FBI employee posing as a Middle Eastern sheikh) targeted more than 30 public officials. A dozen or so were convicted of bribery and conspiracy, including a U.S. senator and six members of the House of Representatives. The busts were shocking when they went down, but Abscam isn't exactly a household name more than 30 years later. Is a long-ago political scandal still the stuff of a compelling movie?

In the hands of David O. Russell, it is. Well, it's the stuff of an entertaining romp, at least. Abscam is the basis for Russell's American Hustle, a film faithful to the general gist of the scandal (the FBI recruits a two-bit hustler to help take down corrupt politicians in a bribery sting) while playing fast and loose with almost all the historical details.

The real-life hustler was Melvin Weinberg; in the film, he's Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, who deserves a special Oscar for best comb-over), a slick con man who fleeces gambling addicts and others in desperate need of cash by promising them phony loans. When an FBI sting nabs Rosenfeld's seductive partner, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), the two agree to help FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) pull off an elaborate sting involving New Jersey power brokers, the mafia, and politicians at all levels of government. (Like the real Abscam, the hustle involves a phony sheikh.)

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