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SXSW Review: Don Jon


Don JonJoseph Gordon-Levitt's acting talent is no surprise to people who have followed his career as he made perhaps the smoothest-ever transition from child star to adult actor. His selection of unique and unusual roles has given him a wide body of work to showcase his talents and prevented typecasting. But Levitt is multi-dimensional -- sponsoring a collaborative art project he named HitRecord, he's drawn thousands of print and digital artists, writers and musicians into his cooperative efforts with a goal of eventually producing a crowdsourced feature film.

To that end, he has written, directed, produced and starred in his latest feature, Don Jon. Originally titled Don Jon's Addiction for its Sundance debut, he changed it before the movie's SXSW screening, because he said it gave the audience false expectations that it was entirely about porn addiction.)

Don Jon relates a kind of second coming-of-age story about Levitt's character Jon, who spends his days working out and his nights at the bar with his friends looking for a perfect "10." In spite of his success as the leader of this hunting pack, Jon finds no woman can match the sexual pleasure he receives from himself in front of a computer screen as he surfs internet pornography.

Even when Don meets his perfect girl Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and falls completely in love, she is unable to satisfy him.  Even as she is unable to satisfy his expectations based on porn, he is finding it difficult to meet Barbara's expectations as a white knight based on the romance movies she voraciously watches every night. His situation is complicated by Esther (Julianne Moore), his night-school classmate who takes an interest in him and causes him to reconsider what he wants in a relationship.

Though Don Jon is Levitt's directorial debut, it would be a disservice to describe the film using words like "for a first-time director." Don Jon is a masterful work of writing, directing and acting, period. It is a sexy, funny, and wholly insightful expose of exactly what young people are doing wrong as they build relationships. Levitt understands cinematic language so well he can telegraph his intentions visually without the need to spell them out for the audience.

SXSW Review: Cheap Thrills


Cheap ThrillsWhat would you do to save your family from homelessness?  How far would you go? Those are the questions Pat Healy must answer in the movie Cheap Thrills, which played at SXSW and has since been acquired for distribution by Drafthouse Films.

Scripted by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga and directed by E.L. Katz, Healy stars as Craig, a writer struggling to make a living for his family as an oil-change mechanic. After the worst day of his life, Craig stops by a local dive bar for a drink he can't afford and meets former high-school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry), who he has not seen in five years.

After reluctantly staying for just one more drink, Craig finds himself in the middle of an unlikely adventure when the two are invited to celebrate with the bar's only other occupants, birthday-girl Violet (Sara Paxton) and her multi-millionaire husband Colin (David Koechner).

What follows is best left for the screen, but it is a disturbing and exhilarating experience. Healy and Embry are fantastic actors and both completely believable as they portray the awkard semi-tension between friends who have grown somewhat apart. That dynamic is obliterated by Koechner. Cheap Thrills couldn't have worked without any of the three, but Koechner is a regular Mephistopheles offering the friends a deal they can't refuse, and a tour through a hell of their own making. This is the kind of easygoing passive-aggressive sadist character Koechner has spent a career perfecting.

One of the most intense films I've ever seen, Cheap Thrills well deserves the SXSW audience award it earned in the Midnighters category. Unlike many schlocky midnight features, this is the kind of movie that should only be shown at midnight.  It's exceptionally graphic, but Katz has mastered the art of don't-show and tell, with a single sound effect that left half the audience jumping completely out of their seats and the rest curled instantaneously into the fetal position.

SXSW 2013 Dispatch: 'Downloaded' Biases


Downloaded posterMy third day of the fest was my busiest for film watching, with three titles. I'm finding this year that transportation considerations are taking more time than ever. Parking downtown is a complaint on everyone's lips as the Convention Center garages fill up in the early morning, and many surface lots that would normally serve overflow have been covered in tents for different events. Since this is my first year taking SXSW Film red carpet photos, I've learned it's a big drain on time as check-in can be 90 minutes to two hours before showtime.

So, my Sunday included a red carpet for the Turk Pipkin Christmas movie When Angels Sing (my review) and ended with the ass-demon horror comedy Milo (my review). Sandwiched in between, I caught Alex Winters' Napster documentary Downloaded.

I have little more to say about Downloaded than I tweeted right after seeing the film. I found the film repetitive, plodding and 90 percent biased toward Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning. When I was a college student working in IT, I followed closely the rise and fall of Napster and read firsthand many of the articles and news pieces Winters included in his doc. A very lively community of readers on Slashdot at the time kept itself educated on all the Napster-related events including the trials, the RIAA posturing, etc. 

There was no question at any point that Fanning and Parker knew they were facilitating music piracy. No tears were shed for Napster as newer, in many cases, better services rose up to take its place.  It does not matter whose side you took, if you even took a side in the debate. On one hand was a company that by today's accepted standards was making it possible for people to steal from the record industry. On the other side was an industry group that was ruining lives, circumventing the legal system, extorting innocent people.

Downloaded paints a picture of the two Napster founders as revolutionary war heroes that changed society with only the best of intentions.  It smoothly glosses over Parker's post-Napster shenanigans at Facebook (go watch The Social Network for an idea about what he was up to) and presents both figures as continuing the fight to bring music sharing legally to the masses.

SXSW Review: When Angels Sing


 When Angels Sing

There are a few classic holiday films we like to pull out each year in addition to the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, such as A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life and the more modern A Christmas Story. A common thread between these films that has helped make them annual favorites is that they don't focus on the religious or ritual aspects of the holiday, but instead on it as a time for homecomings and shared memories with family and loved ones, friends and neighbors. Soon to join those ranks is When Angels Sing, the adaptation of a Turk Pipkin story by director Tim McCanlies and writer Lou Berney.

Easily the best Christmas movie since 1983's A Christmas Story, When Angels Sing was shot in Austin and features a Who's Who of talent with Texas ties. Stars Harry Connick Jr. and Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) are joined by Houston-born Chandler Canterbury, Fionnula Flanagan, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Sara Hickman, Eloise DeJoria, Turk Pipkin and Willie Nelson.

Connick stars as Michael Walker, a college professor and father who refuses to celebrate Christmas due to a tragic accident. When faced with his son giving up on Christmas himself because of another tragedy, Michael is forced to reexamine his own guilty feelings that have made him such a Scrooge.

SXSW Review: Milo



"Is this the line for that party?"
"No, this is for Milo.  It's about an ass-demon."
"The demon's an asshole?"
"No, the demon literally comes out of and goes into a guy's ass!"

-- Actual conversation overheard waiting in line for the premiere of Milo

I didn't have high expectations for a film with this premise by director Jacob Vaughan (The Cassidy Kids), starring Ken Marino, perhaps the only guy in Hollywood who would take a role as the host of a parasitic ass-demon. Nevertheless, after a bit of a rough and shaky start (a little too much setup for my tastes, and a lot too much of Marino on the toilet grunting and moaning in pain), the movie Milo proved to be a funny crowd-pleaser that brings to mind mid-80s video-store schlock like Ghoulies.

SXSW Review: I Am Divine


I Am Divine

Harris Glenn Milstead, professionally known to the world as Divine, was perhaps middle America's first mainstream exposure to a drag queen. I Am Divine is a definitive documentary of Divine's life from his youth growing up in Baltimore to his death in 1988. With this movie, director Jeffrey Schwarz continues his sterling track record of in-depth, fascinating profile films such as Vito and Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story.

Interviews with John Waters, Jayne Mansfield, Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, Bruce Vilanch, Holly Woodlawn, Rikki Lake and finally, Divine himself, paint a fabulous picture of the man inside the dress shedding light on what was, to me, up until now a mysterious personality.

Before watching Schwarz's documentary, I could tell you little more about Divine other than that he was a 300-lb drag queen who once ate a dog turd on camera in John Waters' Pink Flamingos. Now, Divine is a personal hero as inspiring for his personality and drive as his untimely death at the height of his stardom was tragic.

I can think of little better praise for I Am Divine than the fact it elevates Divine to the status of a true hero, who endured pain and mistreatment but found success through talent, hard work and perseverance. Schwarz's documentary takes on a life of its own, and the viewer is drawn into the life and experiences recalled by his subjects as they share intimate details of Divine's life.

I Am Divine screens once more at SXSW on Thursday, March 14 at 11:15 am at Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter.

SXSW Review: Rewind This!


Rewind This! poster

This year's SXSW Film Festival includes many movies with Austin connections, but perhaps none that can be considered so completely Austintacious as director Josh Johnson's labor of love, Rewind This!  After three years of work alongside Christopher Palmer and Carolee Mitchell, the documentary about VHS premiered to a packed house at the Paramount on Monday.

Rewind This! is one of the most entertaining documentaries I've seen, detailing the birth and rise of home video recording technology in both VHS and Betamax formats and their impact on the filmmaking industry. Johnson, Palmer and Mitchell shot thousands of hours of footage with interview subjects like Lloyd Kaufman, Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell), Charles Band, Jason Eisener (Hobo With a Shotgun) and Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), and cut the material down to a feature-length exploration that blends these among with many others into a single cohesive narrative voice.

In addition to the big names, local personalities like Alamo programmers Zack Carlson, Lars Nilsen and Brian Kelley, and film critics like Drew McWeeny of Hitfix and Twitch Film's Todd Brown provide their insights and anecdotes. From flea-market shopping to rummaging through video-store back rooms to expansive home collections, Rewind This! explores titles that are unavailable on any other format, titles that were produced only on VHS, and titles that are noteworthy only for their actual titles or box art.

It's a fascinating rabbit hole to jump into, accompanied by a driving score from Josh Freda that brings to mind many titles from the 1980s glory days of VHS. There is no way you could walk out of this film without wanting in some corner of your mind to go digging through a box or library somewhere to try and find one of the many crazy movies mentioned in Rewind This!  

Austin connections: As aforementioned, a number of Austin film personalities are featured in the documentary, plus local stores Vulcan Video and I Luv Video, and shots of Alamo Drafthouse. Johnson lives in Austin, and Palmer and Mitchell are former Austinites.

Rewind This! screens again on Wednesday, March 13 at 9 pm at Violet Crown 1&2, and on Saturday, March 16 at 1:30 pm at Topfer Theater at ZACH.

SXSW Dispatch: 'Unhung Hero' on Opening Night


"Prophecy" Thomas BagshawMy first day of SXSW 2013 began Friday afternoon with a preview of the Mondo Gallery exhibition of original Game of Thrones artwork (pictured at right) sponsored by HBO, which also included samples of the new Brewery Ommegang's new "Game of Thrones" beer. Look for Katy Daiger Dial's coverage of the exhibit, with more photos, later in the week on Slackerwood.

Although I had planned to catch opening-night movie The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, I decided at the last minute to skip it in favor of a documentary at the Topfer Theatre that I wouldn't have another chance to see, Unhung Hero.

Directed by Brian Spitz, it follows actor Patrick Moote through his rejected Jumbotron marriage proposal that garnered 10 million YouTube hits in four days ... and the subsequent journey he undertakes after being told by his ex-girlfriend that her rejection was due to his extremely small penis.

In spite of his shortcomings, Moote is endowed with charm, charisma, incredibly good looks and an enormous acting talent. All are on public display as he explores sexual culture and penis enlargement techniques in the farthest corners of the world. In spite of his little problem, Moote is self-deprecating but not self-pitying. His honesty and candor about the subject are a rare treat. Unhung Hero is fascinating, informative and hilarious.

The doc screens again at SXSW on Tuesday at 9:30 pm at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, and on Friday at 4:15 pm at Rollins.

Austin at SXSW 2013: Sam Eidson, 'Zero Charisma' (and More)


Sam Eidson

Sam Eidson is a comedic savant who moved to Austin after attending Savannah College of Art & Design. In addition to a hilarious appearance in Emily Hagins' 2011 feature film My Sucky Teen Romance, Eidson has appeared in a number of locally produced shorts, as well as stage productions presented by his collaborative company The Old Murder House Theatre. (Read J.C.'s interview for last year's Murder House production, Jurassic Live!)

Eidson's first lead film role is in the Austin-shot movie Zero Charisma, which is premiering at SXSW on Monday at 7:15 pm at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center. But you might also see him onscreen during SXSW in Grow Up, Tony Phillips and the short Hell No. I conducted the following interview with him via email over the course of a few days.

Slackerwood: What can you tell us about your role in Zero Charisma?

Sam Eidson: I play a D&D Dungeon Master (we call them Game Masters in the movie for legalities) who finds his whole life turned around when a hipster comes in and takes over his game. He's a firecracker who's not afraid to get in your face.

SXSW 2013 Preview: Selected Shorts


Hell No still

Don't forget the shorts programs at SXSW this year. There are a number of great shorts at the fest. Some are from filmmakers you haven't heard of yet -- some feature well-known faces. We were able to get our hands on a few of the shorts before the fest, and here's a rundown on them.

If you're headed to SXSW, remember that in addition to the many world-premiere features there are also really great shorts programs where you can view short films from filmmakers and stars that you may never have another chance to see. Here is a run-down of the ones we were able to screen before the festival.

#PostModem (Shorts Program 1)
According to the filmmakers: "#PostModem is a comedic, satirical sci-fi musical based on the theories of Ray Kurzweil and other futurists. It's the story of two Miami girls and how they deal with the technological singularity, as told through a series of cinematic tweets."

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