Elizabeth Stoddard's blog

AFF 2014 Dispatch: Richard LaGravenese and 'The Last 5 Years'

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Richard LaGravenese at AFF, taken by Jack PlunkettMy friend and I attended the Austin Film Festival's opening night screening of musical The Last 5 Years, starring Anna Kendrick (Up In the Air, Pitch Perfect) and Jeremy Jordan (a Corpus Christi native who's been in Joyful Noise and Smash). My heart was in my throat as soon as Kendrick's Cathy started singing, and this twisty story kept my emotions on edge from then on. Jamie (Jordan) and Cathy sing monologues about the current state of their relationship; her songs move backward in time as his move forward (which seems obvious after the fact, but I didn't note this at the time). They only sing together in the proposal scene.

Director Richard LaGravenese (who also directed the less-extraordinary Beautiful Creatures, which the same friend viewed with me) warned the audience before the film that The Last 5 Years is practically all song. The movie contains very little dialogue -- the songs pretty much say everything. 

Post-screening, the director talked about working on this film for seven years.  He hadn't seen a production of the original 2002 musical by Jason Robert Brown, but fell in love with the cast recording and felt moved to bring the story to film. He and his crew filmed in Harlem in 21 days, with the actors working on multiple takes of the same song in one day (incredible when you consider the challenging nature of the music involved). 

AFF 2014: Vanessa Roth, 'The Texas Promise'

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Vanessa RothAward-winning director Vanessa Roth tends to look deeply into social justice issues in her documentaries -- the effectiveness of the foster care system in Aging Out, the repurcussions of that film in No Tomorrow, equal rights for a lesbian couple in Freeheld (Roth produced), and schools and education in American Teacher and The Third Monday in October. Her most recent film, The Texas Promise, hits close to home as it peers into the state budget cuts to education in Texas. This new documentary from Roth will debut at Austin Film Festival later this week.

Roth answered a few of my questions via email about her work.

Slackerwood: Why is education a recurring theme in your works?

Vanessa Roth: I have so much to say about this that I don’t know where to begin... education as a theme is what all my work focuses on because it is the what holds the key to creating and determining a person’s opportunities in the world. By looking at the system of education and the policies that shape that system, I think we are given an intimate view of our values as a society.

Our country is wrestling with equity, opportunity and the very basic question of what education is supposed to look like at this moment in history. This fascinates me and drives me to find stories about both the system and the lives of those inside it to try to separate rhetoric from real human experience and attitude.

What drew you to this story in Texas for The Texas Promise?

Roth: Equity and opportunity are always themes that I want to explore in my work and when Texas cut so much from its education budget that directly affected the students who needed the resources the most I felt that this story needed to be told.

AFF 2014: Jennifer Harlow, 'The Sideways Light'

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Lindsay Burdge in The Sideways Light

The haunting events that occur while a young woman cares for her ill mother are the basis for thriller The Sideways Light. The dramatic feature is Austin writer/director/producer Jennifer Harlow's first full-length film, and screens as part of the Dark Matters content at Austin Film Festival. Before the fest kicks off, Harlow chatted with me via email about her subject matter, directing while introverted, and finding the right cast.

Slackerwood: Why focus on these two women and their intimate conflict? What drew you to tell their story?

Jennifer Harlow: I knew I wanted to write a ghost story. I was hung up on the idea of being haunted by memories. What if I took those three words literally? Who would that happen to? Someone that is losing their memory, someone that lives in a place full of memories. What if Grandma handed down more than her rocking chair?

If people in compromised states of mind are more sensitive to the supernatural, then a dementia patient and her caregiver/daughter are prime victims. Pile on that the fact that women are afraid of turning into their mothers. That was territory I knew I could write about.

AFF 2014: Meet the '61 Bullets' Filmmakers

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Top to Bottom: Director David Mondigliani, Director Lucy Kreutz, and Producer Yvonne Boudreaux from 61 BulletsAfter years in the making, the documentary 61 Bullets will screen at Austin Film Festival next weekend. The film, which won an AFS Grant and was partially backed through Kickstarter, is the latest project from Austin director David Modigliani (Crawford).  He and co-director Louisiana (Lucy) Kreutz worked with producer Yvonne Boudreaux to delve into the story behind the death of famed Louisiana governor/controversial figure Huey Long.

Before AFF kicks off, the filmmakers answered some questions for me via email about what led them to make the film and the process involved.

Slackerwood (for Boudreaux): Can you talk about your connection to this historical event, and what drew you to look deeper into the circumstances of Huey Long’s death?

Yvonne Boudreaux: "No one has ever told the story right," my grandmother Ida Boudreaux said to me when I was an eighth grader studying Louisiana history. I was working on a report of the shooting of Huey Long, and had learned from my mom that my great uncle, Carl Weiss, was the alleged assassin.

I was fascinated that the subject was never spoken about in the family, and even more so by the mystery that I sensed in the official version of the story. Obviously, this film and the characters are very close to me personally. As production went on and I approached the ages of Carl and Yvonne [Carl Weiss's wife] at the time of the shooting, I began to connect with her story very deeply.

I worked hard to wrap my head around the consequences for Yvonne and her young son after losing the man she loved, leaving family behind, and raising a child alone. The pain that she must have endured and the strength that she showed in moving on were both heavy on my mind. I still think about and admire her often, and will continue to do so as my life unfolds.

Slackerwood (for Modigliani): How did you become involved in this project?

David Modigliani: My friend from graduate school in Austin, Yvonne Boudreaux, brought the story to me. She had seen my first feature documentary, Crawford, and she knew I was interested in exploring political stories through the eyes of the people they impacted. As I learned about the mystery, about the extraordinary, larger-than-life history of Huey Long, and about the families seeking to find closure over the death of their patriarchs, I knew we had a compelling film to make.

Lone Star Cinema: A Mighty Heart

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Archie Panjabi and Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart

While working as a journalist in Karachi, American Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded in early 2002. It seemed timely to watch the 2007 film A Mighty Heart, based on his wife Miriane's memoir of the experience, as similar attacks by ISIS have been in the news in recent weeks.

The main reason I'd been hesitant to see A Mighty Heart is the casting of Angelina Jolie. Nothing against her as an actress, but having a white actress play a mixed-race woman continues a long history of "whitewashing" in film. Jolie does a fine job here, mimicing well Mariane Pearl's French accent and cadence. She plays Mariane as contained and determined during the search, then fierce and raw when she receives the tragic news of her husband's death. Logically I know that if Jolie hadn't been involved, the movie might not have ever received wide release. Yet I couldn't help wondering what qualities an actress of color might have brought to the role.

Jolie anchors the film, which includes a cast so large that it's nigh impossible to keep track of all their names. Reporters Mariane and Daniel Pearl look forward to leaving Pakistan as they prepare for their first child. The night Daniel (Dan Futterman, actor in Judging Amy, but also screenwriter of Capote and Foxcatcher) disappears while working on a story, Mariane hurriedly begins calling his contacts and the authorities. A team of sorts is formed to search for her husband, including acclaimed Indian actor Irrfan Khan (The Lunchbox, Life of Pi) as a Pakastani officer, and two familiar faces from The Good Wife -- Archie Panjabi and Denis O'Hare -- as an Indian-American writer and a Wall Street Journal editor, respectively.

Review: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby posterWhat happens when a director makes two movies from different viewpoints using the same plotline, then compiles them into one project? Director Ned Benson made two versions of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby -- one from the viewpoint of Conor (Him) and one from Eleanor's point of view (Her). If, as I did, you expect the compilation of the two films (Them) to include these differing takes, sorry to say that is not the case.

Instead of the experimental feeling the trailer hints at, the film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them shares similarities with other grief-filled indie relationship dramas (Rabbit Hole and Rachel Getting Married specifically come to mind). What sets it slightly apart is the rhythm of this couple's tragic story and the intensity of the actors' performances.

Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) plays the Eleanor Rigby of the title, holing up in her parents' house after a failed suicide attempt. Dark eyeliner coats her eyes as she dons variations of the same outfit - a light shirt over a dark bra - with such costuming screaming her sadness (especially in comparison to the fresh face and sundresses we see her wear in flashbacks).

Other elements that overtly hint at Eleanor's unhappiness include the ambient, meditative score by Son Lux, punctuated by the cheesy pop songs she loves and the classical music her mother (French actress Isabelle Huppert) listens to. Her sister Katy (Jess Weixler, The Good Wife, Teeth) and Eleanor stay in their childhood rooms, decorated by comics such as "Little Nemo in Slumberland." On her way to the subway, Eleanor walks past statements scrawled on building walls; I probably tried too hard to understand the hidden message of the set design (and I don't think there is one, really).

Eleanor won't talk to her husband Conor (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland), so he resorts to following her around. "Can I keep stalking you?" he asks, when an incident finally gets her attention. Ick. Conor is mystified at Eleanor's harsher reaction to the tragic event that hit the couple. He's working to keep his bar afloat, helped and hindered by his chef and friend Stuart (Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live).

Review: The Congress

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poster for The CongressAri Folman, director of the bleak animated history Waltz with Bashir, adapted a novella by acclaimed author Stanislaw Lem for the screen in the movie The Congress. Folman's take on Lem's The Futurological Congress is only vaguely true to the source material.  Instead of a male hero, we have actress Robin Wright... playing actress Robin Wright. If only this cinematic work didn't hold the talented actress back. While Lem's novella is (supposedly, I haven't read it) a black comedy, Folman's half-animated film is dark and troubling.

Bravo to the director for selecting an older -- by Hollywood standards, anyway -- actress to base this film around. Much is made of Wright's Texan background and decision to age naturally; actually, much is said about Wright, as she sits silently and takes criticism. To put it in terms today's teens will recognize, there is a lot of mansplaining going on here.

Conversations in the first half of The Congress happen to her, with men spouting monologues about their early lives or breaking down for her the mistakes she made in her career. The film opens to Wright quietly crying as her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) berates her for her faulty decision-making. These men want what's best for her, you see. They just want to profit off her as well.

Wright is convinced by her agent and studio head Jeff Green (Danny Huston, John Adams, Children of Men) to have herself scanned so Miramount Studios will own her image for 20 years. During that period of time, she can't act, but can do whatever else she likes. She almost refuses, worrying that "the gift of choice" is taken from her if she signs. But at no point in this film does it ever seem that she is given any choice. She signs the contract because her son is ill, falling into the archetype of the weary, long-suffering mother. Wright's character has no desires or wants for herself, no power and no real agency.

Lone Star Cinema: Spy Kids

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Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara and director Robert Rodriguez during filming for SPY KIDS

When the recent news broke that Alexa Vega will play a recurring character on the upcoming season of country music soap Nashville, now seemed like a perfect time to revisit the original Spy Kids. I tend to picture Vega as she appeared in the Robert Rodriguez film, but she has grown much since then. She's even married... twice.

In 2001, she and co-star Daryl Sabara (whose first role was as Murphy's baby on '90s cultural touchstone, Murphy Brown) played Carmen and Juni Cortez, troubled private-school kids. Their parents Ingrid (Carla Gugino, Karen Sisco, Sucker Punch) and Gregorio (Antonio Banderas) are consultants who have not yet admitted to the children that they used to be secret agents (who met cute at the Hotel Belen, better known as the Omni Hotel downtown). 

When evil genius/children's TV show host Floop (a colorful Alan Cumming, The Good Wife, X-Men 2) and his Minion (Tony Shalhoub, post-Galaxy Quest, pre-Monk) capture the elder Cortezes, their secret comes out. Carmen complains to family friend Felix (Cheech Marin, Up in Smoke, Nash Bridges), "My parents can't be spies -- they're not cool enough!" Of course it is now up to the younger generation to save the parents, using tech made by Machete (Danny Trejo, Machete, From Dusk 'til Dawn).

Review: Mood Indigo

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Mood Indigo posterIf one can expect anything from Michel Gondry, it is that along with the whimsy and touch of the bizarre inherent in his work is an element of truth.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind uses erasure imagery to illustrate the pain of heartbreak. Be Kind Rewind has friendly video store employees creating their own versions of Hollywood hits for their neighborhood.  Gondry's latest film, love story Mood Indigo, however, is utterly drowning in whimsy and lacking any figment of truth.

Debonair and bearded Romain Duris (Populaire, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) stars as Colin, living off family money in a spacious Paris apartment. Audrey Tautou (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) plays cute Chloe, whom Colin meets at a party. The plot goes something like this: guy meets girl, guy and girl fall in love and marry, flower grows in girl's lung.

There's also a B-plot, involving a friend (Gad Elmaleh, Priceless, Midnight in Paris) Colin loans money to court a woman (Aïssa Maïga, Cache, Bamako), which is just as confusing as the rest of the film. The fever dream of a movie is full of fantastic visions, but the story is ridiculous beyond measure. Is fate written out for us by a room full of random people on vintage typewriters? And if so, who cares?

Unpredictabilities may rule Mood Indigo, but the film still follows the overly-familiar classic "movie cough" rule. It used to be that any time someone in a movie coughed, they were terminally ill -- after all, nobody has allergies in the movies. And indeed, as soon as Chloe adorably coughs post-honeymoon, things start going downhill for the couple. 

Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

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Poster for The Hundred-Foot JourneyNew release The Hundred-Foot Journey is a beautifully-shot drama produced by Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg, who likely hope it will prove a hit along the lines of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Formidable British actress Helen Mirren gets top billing as strict French restauranteur Madame Mallory. Her establishment has a Michelin star and brings in big name political figures. However, Madame Mallory's work and life isn't the main focus of this colorful film from Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), adapted by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) from a novel by Richard C. Morais. 

A family of refugees, the Kadams from Mumbai, moves into the vacated building across the street from Madam Mallory's restaurant. Papa (veteran Indian actor Om Puri, Gandhi) wants to open an Indian restaurant in this quiet French village, with the help of son and aspiring chef Hassan (Manish Dayal, 90210, Switched at Birth) and other adult children (Amit Shah and Farzana Dua Elahe). Even the two much younger siblings help out.

The Hundred-Foot Journey is really Hassan's story. The film opens to his narration, and lots of exposition. As soon as cute Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon, Yves Saint Laurent, Mood Indigo) comes on the scene -- she's sous chef for Madame's kitchen, of course -- it is a given that she's the love interest for Hassan's character. The film deserves some credit for following the success of a character of color, but his plotline drags during the second half; this causes the movie to feel longer than its actual two-hour length.

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