Elizabeth Stoddard's blog

AFF 2012 Interview: Jamie Meltzer, 'Informant'


Still from Informant

Informant, an intense documentary which focuses on Austinite Brandon Darby, is documentarian Jamie Meltzer's latest film.  The movie is made up of interviews with Darby, a former anarchist who informed on two young men during the 2008 RNC, and his (former) friends and co-workers.

Meltzer is currently an assistant professor in the MFA program in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford, and his previous films include Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, Welcome to Nollywood and the short La Caminata.  His Informant will show as part of Austin Film Festival on Sunday 10/21 and Wednesday 10/24.

Before the fest kicked off, Meltzer answered some questions I had via email.

Slackerwood: Why did you decide to make a film about Brandon Darby? Did you know him before you started working on the movie?

Jamie Meltzer: I first discovered this story when Brandon posted his "open letter" declaring he was an informant, which The New York Times picked up on. I immediately emailed him and began the (long) process of getting him to agree to an interview (it took six months to do the first interview and another year before he agreed to allow me to use the interview in the film).

AFF 2012 Interview: Kit Pongetti, 'Stakeout'


Juliette Goglia and Elizabeth McLaughlin in Stakeout

Kit Pongetti is a grad of the RTF program at The University of Texas in Austin who now resides in Los Angeles. Her directorial debut, Stakeout, will premiere at Austin Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 9 - The View from Outside (Friday 10/19 at 3:30 pm and Thurs, Oct. 25 at 4 pm at The Hideout). The comic short depicts two 1980s-era teenage gals who sit in their car and watch their peers at parties.

I asked Pongetti a few questions over email to find out about her first directing experience.

Slackerwood:  What is your connection to Austin?

Kit Pongetti: I completely romanticize Austin. Or is it just kind of romantic already? I grew up in the Houston suburbs and fell in love with Austin after a trip there my senior year of high school. I ended up going to UT for five years. Can't just stop at four.

I did a bunch of firsts there, too... first freedom, first love, first band, first road trip. I was in a band called Those Who Dig and we played all over town for four years back in the 90s. The hills, the water, the music, the bbq ... My relationship with Austin is ongoing and starry-eyed.

AFF 2012 Interview: T.C. Johnstone, 'Rising From Ashes'


Rising from AshesLocal director T. C. Johnstone's latest documentary shows the formation of Team Rwanda, a group of cyclists trained and coached by former professional cyclist Jock Boyer.  Narrated by Forest Whitaker, Rising From Ashes checks in with Boyer and members of the first team in that hilly country over a period of about seven years.

Johnstone's film will screen Thursday 10/18 and Wednesday 10/24 as part of Austin Film Festival. I was able to view the film before it screens at AFF, and Johnstone answered some of the questions I had after my viewing.

Slackerwood: How did you know this team was starting up in Rwanda (or that there was interest in starting up a cycling team there?)

Johnstone: In 2005, I traveled to Rwanda with my friends Dan Cooper and Tom Ritchey. Tom was one of the inventors of the mountain bike and he wanted to ride in Africa. I brought my camera and we did a short film of the trip.

One morning we arrived in the parking lot to find 15 cyclists; Dan had met them on a previous trip. They rode with Tom for 100 miles and over dinner the idea of a team came together. They asked if I was interested in making a film about it. Seven years later, here we are!

How did you connect with Jock Boyer?

Johnstone: When the team first got started, we needed a coach. Jock and Tom had known each other since they were teenagers. They were more competitors than friends in the early years. [Jock] had recently retired and he was willing to give it a shot.

Do you think Jock started out with certain notions that were dispelled after time spent in Rwanda? It surprised me that he had little to no previous knowledge of the genocide there.

Johnstone: I have met a lot of people in 15 years of filmmaking and Jock Boyer is one of a kind. He has a unique gift of being able to focus on a goal and manage circumstances to find success. He is very deliberate with his choices. I saw that even a few years before we shot the film. I had met him with Tom in N. California.

AFF 2012 Interview: Todd Berger, 'It's a Disaster'


Todd Berger

The comedy It's a Disaster will be one of the Marquee Screenings at this week's Austin Film Festival, screening Saturday, Oct. 20 at the Paramount. This the first time at AFF for filmmaker -- and former Longhorn -- Todd Berger. His documentary Don't Eat the Baby: Adventures at Post-Katrina Mardi Gras (Jette's review), played AFF in 2007, and he returned in 2009 with the hipster-noir comedy The Scenesters (Jette's review). In 2010, you might have seen him onstage at the script reading for The Hand Job

I asked him a few questions via email about It's a Disaster, which premiered at Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this year.

Slackerwood: How did you conceive of the idea for this apocalyptic comedy?

Berger: It all started when I read an article about how George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is public domain. I came up with an idea to shoot new footage, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid style, and insert it into the old movie to turn it into a comedy about a bunch of couples that get together for a party and are overrun by zombies.

Review: Argo


Ben Affleck, Victor Garber, Page Leong, Tate Donovan and others in ARGO

Ben Affleck's latest drama, Argo, is set in 1979-80 during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The first moments of the film establish the setting for us with a quick look at the country's recent history (and the U.S. involvement in it) preceding the attack, and then we are thrown into the protests leading to the attack on the American embassy in Tehran. Argo is practically tension-filled from these first glimpses of protest until the last few minutes of the movie.

As the embassy is overtaken, six American employees escape and are taken in by a Canadian diplomat (Victor Garber). While the rest of the embassy employees are front-page news as hostages, the CIA and State Department quietly work on ways to get the six out of Iran. Exfiltration ("exfil") expert Tony Mendez (played by director Affleck) comes up with the idea of claiming these Americans as Canadian filmmakers checking out Iran as a possible setting for a sci-fi pic named "Argo." A bizarre notion to be sure, but it's "the best bad idea" of the bunch the government was considering.

With the approval of his boss Jack O'Donnell (a craggy-faced Bryan Cranston), Mendez meets up with Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) in LA and they start a plan in motion. Goodman and Arkin's scenes add just the right amount of levity to the otherwise taut Argo.

Review: Won't Back Down


Schoolchildren extras and Viola Davis in Won't Back Down

When I was in elementary school and middle school, we were shown movies like Stand and Deliver or Lean on Me in class. These 1980s-era films were inspired by real men who worked within the strains of the educational system to make a difference. Somehow, although this movie says it's "inspired by real life events," I doubt Won't Back Down will enter this canon. School reform is a touchy issue for many, especially within our current political climate when Wisconsin's governor signs an anti-union law, and Chicago teachers strike.

In Won't Back Down, single mother Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) frets over the way her dyslexic daughter is being taught in her local public school. Which is to say, she's basically not being taught. The girl's teacher leaves a shopping website open on her desk computer, plays with her cell phone during school and punishes kids by not letting them go to the bathroom. My history teacher friend referred to this character as the "Col. Tavington" of this film (that's a reference from The Patriot). She's so despicable that she's unbelievable. This teacher is tenured, and can't be fired in the current school setup. The principal won't let Jamie transfer her daughter to another class, so she's stuck.

Meanwhile, teacher Nona (Viola Davis, who I think is wonderful in anything) is frustrated by her son's slow learning style. Nona and her husband Charles (Lance Reddick, Fringe holla!) are mutually disappointed with each other, and she's pretty much given up in her classroom. She and Jamie meet and eventually team up in an attempt to turn their school around.

Review: Pitch Perfect


L to R: Hana Mae Lee, Rebel Wilson, Ester Dean, Anna Kendrick and Alexis Knapp in Pitch Perfect

Barden College must be the ultimate blow-off school. This fictional institution is the setting for Pitch Perfect, and none of the main characters seem to attend any classes (although I did catch a quick glimpse of one character reading a textbook). For our protagonists in this musical, college is all about a cappella.

Oscar nominee -- and Tony Award nominee, lest you doubt her singing chops -- Anna Kendrick (Up In the Air) stars as Beca, an angsty newcomer to Barden. Her hobby is creating audio mashups, and her dream is to be a DJ/record producer. Her dad, a professor at Barden, is making her attend the school for a year before he'll finance any trip to L.A. Dad tells her to get involved with some campus activity, so she auditions for the Barden Bellas, the all-girl a cappella group.

Her new friend/obvious love interest Jesse (Skylar Astin, who was in Spring Awakening on Broadway) makes it into the Treblemakers (puns, this movie haz them), the award-winning male singing group led by the annoying Bumper (Adam DeVine). The feud between the Barden Bellas and the Treblemakers is the main conflict of Pitch Perfect. Will the relationship between Jesse and Beca survive the antagonism between their groups? Of course it will. This movie isn't really breaking any new ground here.

Finding the 'Austin' in AFF 2012 Features



The full lineup for Austin Film Festival 2012 has now been released. Among the big-budget films, Dustin Hoffman's directiorial debut, indie movies and documentaries are flicks with ties to Austin (and/or Texas in general). Among the better-known movies, The Sessions has a slight local connection in one of its stars -- former (but not forgotten) Austinite John Hawkes.

Here are some of the feature-length films made in Austin or with Austin filmmakers. If we missed anything, please let us know. Also, if you're one of the filmmakers on this list, please drop us a line, because we'd love to cover your movie.

Alamo South Lamar Plans an Intermission, and Other Theater Development News


Alamo S Lamar Redevelopment Plan by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture

The land sale has been in the works for a while, and yesterday it became official: Lamar Plaza, which houses Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar and The Highball, has been purchased by Greystar developers. This likely multi-million dollar deal (the final sale price hasn't been released) means the current surface lot and one-story shops setup are going bye-bye.  Of more interest to filmgoers such as you and I are the implications of this sale as far as the Alamo theatre and The Highball are concerned.

The news is mixed. The Alamo South Lamar and Highball will be sticking around, although not in their current formations. The Highball, where my friends and I sing karaoke during happy hour every now and then, will close November 17 to be re-worked. When the new Highball opens in mid-to-late 2013, gone will be the vintage bowling lanes. There will still be a bar, stage and private karaoke rooms -- along with the addition of open-air seating. The new Highball will sit adjacent to the theater.

The South Lamar theater will close in January 2013 for about nine months, and this will likely throw some event planners and moviegoers for a loop. Regular series (such as Austin Film Society screenings) that usually show at the Lamar location will probably relocate to either the Ritz or Village locations. If you prefer watching summer blockbusters at the Alamo, you'll have to head to the Slaughter, Village, or Lake Creek locations ... or learn to love other Austin movie theaters.

Lone Star Cinema: Places in the Heart


Yankton Hatten, Gennie James, Sally Field and Danny Glover in Places in the Heart

Opening to the hymn "Blessed Assurance" and closing to "In the Garden," writer/director Robert Benton sets Places in the Heart firmly in the Bible Belt. The 1984 movie is based, and was filmed in, Benton's hometown of Waxahachie, Texas. The year is 1935 and the small town is muddling through the Depression.

Sally Field centers the film as Edna Spalding, a mother trying to hold on to her home after her sheriff husband is unexpectedly killed. In the first few minutes of the film, he is accidentally shot by a drunk young man on the train tracks. The young man is black in the Jim Crow-era South, and the repercussions of his actions are horrific. Benton chooses to parallel the deaths and funerals of the two men so we can compare, contrast and think on them.

Edna seems uncertain of her identity, role and future now that her husband is gone.  The day of her husband's funeral, young hobo Moze (Danny Glover) asks Edna for work and suggests a possible way for her to make money: Plant cotton in her fields. With the help of Moze, her blind tenant Mr. Will (John Malkovich), and her young kids Frank and Possum (Texans Yankton Hatten and Gennie James), Edna does just that. 

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