Elizabeth Stoddard's blog

Austin at SXSW 2014: John Fiege, 'Above All Else'


John Fiege filming Above All Else, courtesy of Keegan Curry

John Fiege is an Austin director whose interest in environmental issues -- he holds an M.S. in cultural geography and environmental history -- plays into his filmmaking decisions.  His 2007 film Mississippi Chicken (Slackerwood review) documented immigrants working at a rural Mississippi poultry plant, and his newest work follows Texan landowner David Daniel as he protests the Keystone XL pipeline.

Fiege directed, produced and served as cinematographer on Above All Else, which will have its world premiere at SXSW in a couple of weeks. Before the fest, he was able to take part in the following interview via email.

Slackerwood: What drew you to document David Daniel’s fight against the Keystone XL pipeline? How did you first hear about his story?

John Fiege: In fall of 2011, I started making a film about the BP oil spill in South Louisiana, but the Keystone story was in the news and caught my attention. It was another potential environmental disaster with people from a wide diversity of backgrounds organizing to stop it before it became another BP. The pipeline was slated to end in Texas, where I live, so I began hunting for Texas landowners fighting the pipeline.

Lone Star Cinema: The Iron Giant

Still from The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant may not have been a box-office success upon its original 1999 release, but the animated film based in 1957 Maine has come to be loved and appreciated by many in the years since. The quirky, heartbreaking sci-fi tale pairs the beauty of its hand-drawn animation with a powerful message.

Hogarth (Eli Marienthal, American Pie) is a young boy in fictional coastal town Rockwell (presumably named after this Rockwell) who stumbles upon a ginormous alien machine one night. Hogarth befriends the giant, who has lost most of his memory, and attempts to pass knowledge on to the larger being. Harry Connick, Jr. figures into the voice cast as a hipster scrap metal collector/artist who supervises some of Hogarth and the giant's interactions.

Meanwhile, Hogarth's widowed mom Annie (Jennifer Aniston) rents out a room to government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald, Thelma & Louise), sent to the town after reports of metal monsters and strange happenings make their way to Washington.  As Hogarth tries to teach the giant that he can choose to be what he wants (instead of what the machine may have been designed for), Mansley is determined to prove the dangerous existence of the imposing metal figure.

Austin at SXSW 2014: All the Features


Jason Dohring and Kristen Bell in Veronica Mars

More keynotes (Tilda Swinton!) for this year's SXSW Film Festival were announced yesterday, with a few more films added to the schedule. Many features and documentaries with Austin and/or Texas connections are on the schedule for SXSW 2014, which takes place from March 7-15. Here's the rundown, with some familiar names joining new voices.


Veronica Mars -- Creator/writer/director/Austinite Rob Thomas kickstarted the budget for this silver-screen continuation of the cult favorite TV series. Kristen Bell (Veronica) and Jason Dohring (Logan) -- and many more from the original series cast -- reprise their roles when this detective movie makes its world premiere at SXSW. (screening times)

Joe -- Current Austin resident and director David Gordon Green, whose Prince Avalanche played at SXSW 2013, directed this Nicolas Cage vehicle about an ex-con (Cage) who befriends a teenage boy (Tye Sheridan, Mud). The movie was shot in Austin, Bastrop, Lockhart and Taylor, and Austin-based actress Heather Kafka has a brief but memorable role. Jette caught this at a press screening and says you do not want to miss it. (screening times)

Review: The Monuments Men


The Monuments Men posterWhen my friend jokingly asked before our screening of The Monuments Men if this would be like an Ocean's Eleven part 4, she wasn't far off. Actor/director George Clooney assembles a cast of heavy-hitters for this World War II dramedy and only barely taps into their talent. I have a feeling the actors were having a better time chumming around together off the lot than we did watching the resulting movie.

Clooney's film is based on a group of men past conscription age -- art historians, architects and art directors -- who volunteer to go to Europe to save important works of Western art from Nazi capture or destruction. The characters all have names, but with the lack of any real character introduction or development, good luck remembering them. I could only keep the people straight by recognizing the actors involved. 

John Goodman and Bill Murray play architects, Bob Balaban (Moonrise Kingdom) is an art director/possible choreographer, Matt Damon and Clooney play art historians, then there's a Brit in need of redemption (Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey) and a French museum curator (Jean Dujardin, The Artist). The team goes through basic training, then splits up to recover works of art endangered by the Nazis (specifically the Ghent altarpiece and Madonna of Bruges). Cate Blanchett is the only female with a sizable role -- she actually may be the only woman with a speaking role in the film! -- as a French secretary to a Nazi officer. 

The plot is formulaic, and the script is schmaltzy and heavy-handed. The confused tone reminded me of an episode of Futurama ("War Is the H-Word") that pokes fun at M.A.S.H. with a Hawkeye-style robot who can only switch between irreverent and maudlin.

The Monuments Men knows how it wants you to feel, and it will be explicit about it. Alexandre Desplat's score, far from his best work, soars at a moment punctuated by a remember-why-we're-here-Art-is-important voiceover by Clooney's character, and you are meant to feel sad right then. Too bad the film fails at emotional manipulation... except for the Battle of the Bulge scene with Murray's character silently crying in the shower tent as his daughter (via recording) sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Some of us just tend to get choked up when that song plays.

SXSW Film Announces 2014 Features Lineup


Michael Pena and Rosario Dawson in Cesar Chavez

The feature film lineup for the SXSW 2014 Film Festival, held March 7-15, was announced today. This year's film festival and conference will include some new aspects -- an "Episodic" series made up of upcoming TV projects and SxSports -- but will keep focus on features (and shorts, although that lineup is released next week).

Some of the standouts I noticed in this year's programming: Now-Austinite David Gordon Green's Joe, the North American premiere of Diego Luna's Cesar Chavez (trailer), Beyond Clueless (a celebration of the teen movie genre narrated by Fairuza Balk), the American premiere of Alejandro Jodorowsky's autobiographical The Dance of Reality, and as previously announced, the world premiere of the Veronica Mars movie (from Austin's own Rob Thomas).

Lone Star Cinema: 25th Hour


Edward Norton in 25th Hour

It seems strange to select such a New York City-centric film as Spike Lee's 25th Hour for Lone Star Cinema, but the epilogue for the movie was filmed in our state. So, here we are. Released a year after 9/11, the movie moves at a kind of meditative pace as drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) spends his last day as a free man in NYC. He meanders around the city with his rescued pitbull Doyle, and has dinner with his dad (a gruff Brian Cox, The Bourne Identity) before meeting friends at a club for one last fete.

There are a few flashbacks as Monty recalls meeting his younger lady love, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson, Rent) and suspects her possible involvement in the bust that led to his arrest. His two closest friends are from childhood: slick investment banker Frank (Barry Pepper, True Grit) and lumpy prep school teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote). All three commiserate and celebrate with Marty as he faces a seven-year sentence.

25th Hour is based on a screenplay by David Benioff, who wrote the original novel (and would go on to run HBO's Game of Thrones). The language is gritty, especially in the harsh monologue Norton's character delivers to a bathroom mirror: a rant about ethnic and other minorities in the city that speaks more to his feeling of absolute desparation than anything else. The rapport between the three fellows is often believably strained and forced, for what do they really have in common anymore besides the length of time they've known each other?

2013 in Review: Elizabeth's Top Ten Women Onscreen


Delpy in Before Midnight, Gerwig in Frances Ha, Darlene Love in 20 Feet from Stardom

There is much movement to be made as far as diverse representation of women on the big screen, as well as getting more women behind the camera, but last year was not lacking in opportunities to see brilliant performances by females in film.  So without much further ado, here are my top ten ladies of 2013 film:

10. The sisters of Frozen -- I certainly didn't expect much from this movie after reading how "difficult" Frozen's head of animation found it to animate women.  It was a happy surprise to find the main relationship in the film is between the two sisters, Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) and not a male/female romance. The sisters share tentative affection, with Anna determined to restore the close friendship they shared as kids. If you can watch the "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?" sequence and remain dry-eyed, more power to you. [Mike's review]

Preview: 'Citizen Architect' and Fundraising for the Rural Studio



The Rural Studio is a program through Auburn University started by the late architect Samuel Mockbee. Architecture students live and work in rural, empoverished communities of Alabama, designing and building community projects and homes for some residents using donated and recycled materials.

The Austin Film Society is hosting a special screening Tuesday, Jan. 14 of Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio to raise funds for the Rural Studio on the 20th anniversary of its founding. [tickets] The film, directed by Austinite Sam Wainwright Douglas, peers into parts of Mockbee's biography while showing progress on a 2002 Rural Studios housing project for "Music Man."

Interview subjects in the documentary include academic figures (UT Austin's Stephen Ross among them) who praise Mockbee's program for offering in-field learning. There are only a couple of dissenting voices -- a reluctant Alabama resident who says the Rural Studio has done nothing to help (until they build a fire station in his town) and a Yale professor/architect who has faint praise for Mockbee. 

AFS Doc Nights Preview: 'Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer'


Photo by Jamel Shabazz, seen in Jamel Shabazz Street PhotographerStreet-style photography seems almost pedestrian now, with blogs like The Sartorialist, Humans of New York or (my favorite) What Ali Wore popping up every day, but this wasn't the case when photographer Jamel Shabazz started snapping pics in the '70s.  A friend of the artist says he was "capturing life in its purest form."

Shabazz depicted the history of his NYC borough, documenting the early days of hip-hop culture, the fashion and lifestyle he saw day-to-day in the subway or walking the streets of Brooklyn. 

Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer (2013) delves into the photographer's influential work and follows some of his current-day activities. Director Charlie Ahearn's previous work includes 1983's Wild Style, a hip hop docudrama. In this film, Ahearn includes interviews with cultural figures such as Fab 5 Freddy and KRS-One among others.

Austin Film Society will show the Shabazz documentary this Sunday, Jan. 12 at 4pm [tickets] at AFS at the Marchesa. Watch the trailer below.

Our Holiday Favorites: Bachelor Mother


Ginger Rogers, Charles Coburn and David Niven in Bachelor Mother

Welcome to Holiday Favorites, a series in which Slackerwood contributors and our friends talk about the movies we watch during the holiday season, holiday-related or otherwise.

Bachelor Mother, a 1939 romantic comedy from writer/director Garson Kanin (My Favorite Wife, Born Yesterday), is a film my sister and I make a point to watch together around New Year's Eve. It's one of the only DVDs of which we both have a copy (Monsoon Wedding might be the other). Ginger Rogers stars as Polly Parrish, a department store employee who loses her temp job the day after Christmas and stumbles upon an orphaned baby. Forces beyond her control make her keep the child, although she once attempts to foist the baby off on David Niven's rich playboy character. 

The plot involves screwball antics, a stern and wealthy businessman (played nimbly by character actor Charles Coburn) who yearns for his son to settle down, dancing (of course!), a New Year's Eve sequence at Times Square, sweet romance and It's a Wonderful Life's Frank Albertson (we say, "Hee-haw!" when we see him onscreen) playing a sneaky toy department employee trying to break into management.

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