Elizabeth Stoddard's blog

Holiday Films at the Paramount: C'mon and Let it Snow


Stills from Love Actually, A Christmas Story, It's a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St Louis, White ChristmasNow that it's Thanksgiving week, it's time to get to watching holiday movies! Here to help, the Paramount Theatre is showing a variety of films during the month of December. As you watch these older and more recent Christmas classics, you can imbibe the free hot chocolate provided (discounted "extra toasty" beverages will also be available).

For something different this year, the downtown Austin landmark will be running a special deal for marriage proposals on Sunday, December 8. In between the Love Actually showtimes that day, the marquee will read "Will you marry me?" and couples can reserve times to pop the question in front of the theatre.

I asked Paramount programmer Stephen Jannise how this idea was conceived and whether this is the first time something like this has been done at the historic venue. His response:

"One of my coworkers actually came up with the proposal idea after I had already programmed Love Actually. Apparently we get tons of calls from people wanting to use the marquee to propose, and of course we just can't accommodate all those requests (a majority of the time we're using that marquee to promote our shows). So we figured we'd take a whole day to give people an opportunity to get photos with the marquee, along with all the other awesome benefits of that package. And what better movie to pair that experience with than Love Actually! To my knowledge, this has never been done at the Paramount."

Here's the schedule for seasonal movies at the theatre:

AFS Docs Preview: Slavery By Another Name


Still of men in Birmingham, AL cell via Slavery By Another NameAustin Film Society will screen Slavery by Another Name this Wednesday, Nov. 13 at AFS at the Marchesa [event info/tickets]. The documentary, which PBS originally broadcast in 2012, delves into the ways African-Americans were forced into involuntary servitude in the post-Civil War South, until the 1940s.

I imagine most of us are at least vaguely familiar with the system of sharecropping, but how many of us were taught about peonage in history class? Not me, unfortunately.  I was aghast to just be learning about this illegal debt servitude at my current age.

The documentary, based on the book by Douglas A. Blackmon, uses interviews with historians and descendants of victims of forced labor alongside live-action scenes of actors performing specific stories. Laurence Fishburne narrates. The history of practices such as convict leasing (men who really shouldn't have been arrested in the first place were "leased" to corporations for services such as mining), chain gangs (where the Southern states used those same men for highway improvement), debt servitude/peonage and sharecropping is deeply discussed, with illustrations. We get to hear from a few descendants of the white businessmen and farmers involved.

I had a bitter taste in my mouth as I watched Slavery by Another Name, disgusted at the historical events it portrays, not the film itself. Director Samuel D. Pollard is the mind behind a few American Masters programs and a couple segments of the lauded Eyes on the Prize series. This documentary definitely has the feel of a PBS program -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The film's writer Sheila Curran Bernard will participate in a Q&A via Skype on Wednesday, moderated by Paul Stekler from the University of Texas Radio-Television-Film program (and a documentary filmmaker himself).

AFF Review: Sombras de Azul


Yasmani Guerrero and Seedne Bujaidar in Sombras de Azul

A long-form poem set to film and interspersed with dialogue, Sombras de Azul from Kelly Daniela Norris takes the viewer on a scenic trip to Cuba. Maribel, played by the director's cousin Seedne Bujaidar, arrives in the country after the sudden death of her older brother Carlos. In the touristy areas, silent museums and colorful back streets of Havana, she looks for hints of her brother at the same time she pays a sort of tribute to him.

During her short time in the country, Maribel meets friendly cafe owners, a Swedish tourist (Charlotta Mohlin, True Blood), and carpenter/failed thief Eusebio (Cuban actor Yasmani Guerrero). Each in their different way aid in her healing process.

Sombras de Azul moves in quiet meditation, with Maribel's reflections about her brother spoken over scenes of landscape, cityscape or beach. People in white congregate on the streets for an unnamed sacred event. Maribel sits silently in a graveyard under a tree, the audio of her narration softly spooling out a tall tale Carlos once told her about a snake. 

Review: 12 Years a Slave


Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

"Survival's... about keeping your head down."
"I don't want to survive, I wanna live."

I sincerely hope that 2013 is the break-out year for Chiwetel Ejiofor, when he gets the attention from filmgoers (and filmmakers) he so deserves.  With his phenomenal, determined performance as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's film 12 Years a Slave (and his part in the upcoming dramatization of Half of a Yellow Sun), it could happen!

If, like Jette, you read Northup's biography/slave narrative in school, you're familiar with the story. Northup was a free man of color in mid-19th Century Saratoga, NY, lovingly caring for his wife and two young children and playing the fiddle for parties in the region. Taken in by con men while his family is away, Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery under another name. He is beaten, threatened, denigrated and tortured during his dozen years as a slave to a couple of plantation owners.

Denial of identity is a major theme of 12 Years a Slave. Upon landing in New Orleans after a horrific steamboat ride, the slave auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) calls Northup by the name of Platt. Captured woman Eliza (Adepero Oduye, Pariah) still calls him Solomon, but once she is gone we see Northup giving in to his renaming. Hope remains that he will be found and taken out of slavery, but as Platt he can't keep straining against the forces holding him down. The last embers of a letter he wanted to send home (and cannot) glow and fade onscreen. When his name -- and the freedom it represents -- is finally returned to him, Ejiofor exhibits Northup's deep relief and joy, lessened only by knowing he cannot help the others left behind.

AFF 2013 Dispatch: I'm Dating You Not, Drones


Stills from I'm Dating You Not (top) and DronesAfter the bleak shorts I attended on Saturday, I decided a light romance was what I needed Sunday afternoon. I went to the screening of My Man Godfrey (1936) at the Paramount, introduced by Shane Black, and then drove over to the Rollins. 

Director Guillermo Fernández Groizard was there to introduce his film I'm Dating You Not, filmed in Madrid.  The fast-paced comedy stars his wife Virginia Rodríguez as Paula, a woman whose coworker Roberto (Dario Frias) is besotted with her. 

The director told us before the movie began that the budget for this work was in the hundred-thousands (!!), but I'm Dating You Not has the look of something with a larger budget. Rodríguez and Frias have a great will-they/won't-they chemistry and the script by Pablo Flores is silly without being stupid. The Spanish film was a perfect remedy.

In another vein entirely, I was able to view Rick Rosenthal's excellent thriller Drones. The movie is a fictional depiction of a lieutenant's first day on drone duty, but the problems Lt. Lawson (Eloise Mumford) and Jack (Matt O'Leary) confront are very real.  How much collateral damage is too much?

Most of the movie has Lawson and Jack working in a stuffy trailer at a Nevada Air Force base, with a limited amount of time to control their aircraft thousands of miles away in Pakistan (before "bingo time" when the drone runs out of fuel). They are tracking the home of suspected terrorist Mahmoud Khalil (Amir Khalighi). We watch in real time as Lawson and Jack question each other and their higher-ups about the task they have been assigned.

This nail-biter of a film touches on sexism in the military, military suicide, and the more obvious question of the ethics of drone warfare. Thanks to the intense story and acting by Mumford and O'Leary, Drones is not a movie I'm likely to forget.

Drones plays again Thurs, Oct. 31 at 8:45 pm at the Hideout [Festival Genius].

AFF 2013 Dispatch: 'Revolution' in Line for Shorts


Ouverture (top), L to R: Mr. Invisible, Anniversario

Saturday evening at Austin Film Festival, I ran into a friend from high school at The Hideout. As we stood in line talking with a college-age badgeholder about what we'd seen so far, we noticed some recognizable faces were basically cutting in line in front of us (with permission from AFF folks). Some cast members from NBC's Revolution wanted to check out the Shorts 4 program. 

Among the actors I spotted were Giancarlo Esposito, Stephen Collins (7th Heaven) and Brenda Strong (who's on the new Dallas). Not a one of them refused a picture with a fan (as our new young friend was happy to discover). We got in, but I'm not sure all of the film passholders in line did. Indeed, two of the three shorts programs I attended that day were full to bursting. AFF might want to consider moving the shorts to a larger venue next year.

AFF 2013 Dispatch: Callie Khouri's Inspiring Screenwriting Advice


Callie Khouri by Arnold Wells

I never know how early to arrive to line up for an AFF panel; I tend to err on the side of caution and was downtown an hour before the first panels I wanted to attend. Before "A Conversation with Callie Khouri" began on Sunday morning, I actually saw her in the bathroom. Yes, I stopped myself from asking when Avery and Juliette will finally hook up on Nashville (but inquiring minds want to know!) -- and didn't even ask her about it during the panel itself.

Ben Blacker (creator of the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast) led the interview with Khouri, who told us about her childhood in Kentucky (after her birth in San Antonio). She read a lot for stimulation, but as for writing, "I never thought it was something I could do."

Khouri wrote Thelma and Louise in six months after living and working in L.A. for a time. This screenplay was the "greatest experience writing I've ever had... I felt like something had come to me... it consumed me." She didn't follow any guidelines for screenplay structure and didn't even use an outline, "I knew nothing about screenwriting." She began with the idea that two women go on a crime spree, and it took off from there. She said the whole feeling of the movie came to her at once, like "being punched in the heart."

AFF Review: Dear Sidewalk


Dear Sidewalk poster Gardner (Joseph Mazzello, Jurassic Park) is a socially awkward, 25-year-old mail carrier in the indie romantic comedy Dear Sidewalk.  He keeps to a usual routine which includes a postal route walking through Austin neighborhoods, a daily chat with sarcastic retiree Trudy (Lana Dieterich) and weekly meetings with his small philatelic club. This stamp-collecting group is made up of his postal service co-workers (Davi Jay, Hugo Perez  and C. K. McFarland) who encourage him to get out more. Meanwhile, he sleeps in a boat in front of his best pal Calvin's (Josh Fadem, 30 Rock) house.

Then fortysomething divorcee Paige (Michelle Forbes, True Blood) moves into a house on his route and disrupts his daily pattern. She flirts with him and takes him to the Cathedral of Junk.  She throws his watch in Town Lake (or Lady Bird Lake, if you prefer). What does this mean for Gardner?

Mazzello at first appears uncertain of how he wants to portray Gardner, but grows into the role as Dear Sidewalk progresses (or maybe it just bothered me less as the film went on). The relationship between Gardner and brother-from-another-mother Calvin is sweet -- they are both odd birds -- and fits with the goofy vibe of the film.  Indeed, their friendship seemed more believable than the idea of Paige and Gardner getting together.

The character of Paige comes off as incomplete.  We're given some facts about her (she's recently divorced, used to be an artist and hates the blind dates her brother keeps setting her up on), but there is much left unknown about her and not as much depth to the role as I would like. 

Sure, the plot is a smidge disjointed, but the writing made me laugh out loud more than once. The supporting characters (diverse in age and ethnicity, yay) were standouts of the movie. Trudy is fearless and flirty.  Gardner's co-workers are quirky and full of advice for him. I can't neglect to mention Ashley Spillers, who injects some verve into Dear Sidewalk as a love interest for Calvin [see our interview with Ashley].

Dear Sidewalk is director Jake Oelman's first feature film, and shows Austin as a walkable city: Gardner doesn't own a car, and seems to take the path near Auditorium Shores daily. As the mail carrier traverses streets dense with trees, the film also features some colorful houses in town. The Austin in this movie has the feeling of a smaller suburban town -- with a great view of downtown easily available.

AFF 2013 Dispatch: Accidental Theme for the Night


Philomena (top) and Political BodiesAfter voting early on Thursday, I went to the Alamo Drafthouse Village for the first night of the Austin Film Festival. Arriving 40 minutes before the 7:30 screening, I was #50 in the badges line for the marquee screening of Philomena. Obviously, many Austinites thought the Village theatre would be a safe choice for Thursday night... but besides the badges, not many of the attendees with film passes got in.  The room was packed.

This new Stephen Frears drama (with comedic elements) stars Judi Dench as an Irish woman yearning to know what happened to the son she birthed 50 years ago. He was born in her teenage years at a convent where she was forced to work as he was put up for adoption. Former political figure Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) decides to aid her in her search as he works on a human interest story about it.

Based on a true story, this heart-rending film had me tearing up minutes before Dench would make a comment that would crack me up.  Philomena has a refreshing message of mercy, along with a clever script that makes much of the class differences between Martin and Philomena.

I realized as I raced to my car and hurriedly drove to the Texas Spirit Theatre that Philomena and the next film on my schedule, Political Bodies, share a commonality: Both films have to do with reproductive decisions. A teen in mid-20th century Ireland, knowing nothing of birth control, Philomena's choices during her pregnancy were very limited. And if conservative Republicans have their way in Virginia, options for the women of that state will be similarly limited... in 2013.

Political Bodies follows the players in the 2012 battle for reproductive rights in Virginia, from GOP lawmakers to women who run the clinics affected by legislation. Abortion provider Shelley Abrams talks of attacks the clinics had to prepare for in the past and says that currently "the assault has come from our own government."

AFF Interview: Theo Love, 'Little Hope Was Arson'


Little Hope Was Arson

Making its Texas premiere at this week's Austin Film Festival is the debut documentary from Theo Love, Little Hope Was Arson. Love's film takes a close look at the string of fires set at East Texas churches a few years ago, talking to some of the communities affected by the arsons as well as the perpetrators of the destruction.

I conducted an interview with the director via email in the midst of his preparation for the festival.

Slackerwood: What drew you to the subject matter of the 2010 church fires in East Texas? Do you have ties to Texas?

Theo Love: I first learned about the story through an article in a Texas Monthly magazine two years after the events took place. I don't think I read more than two paragraphs before I knew that I had to make this into a movie.

I grew up as the son of missionaries in Southeast Asia, so naturally, I had a very religious upbringing but instead of going to a church building every Sunday, we would meet in houses or outside. My spirituality had no ties to buildings whatsoever. When I moved to California after high school, I got a job working as a janitor at a mega-church. As I cleaned this huge sanctuary in the middle of the night, I couldn't help but question the priorities of western Christian culture.

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