Caitlin Moore's blog

AFF 2013: Audience Award Winners and Distribution Deals


aff logoAustin Film Festival ended last week, but the news flashes aren't over yet. The 2013 Audience Award winners were announced Monday and include a few with Austin/Texas connections -- most notably All of Me, an Austin-based documentary, and Sombras de Azul, which was written and directed by Austin filmmaker Kelly Daniela Norris.

The Marquee Feature Award went to Tommy Oliver's family drama 1982, and the Narrative Feature pick Beside Still Waters was also a Jury Award winner. Directed and co-written by Chris Lowell, this ensemble piece explores heavy themes using humor and heart. Many Audience Award winners from past years have gone on to more widespread attention and acclaim, including Silver Linings Playbook, Spinning Plates and 2011's The Artist.

Take a look at the full list of 2013 awardees:

  • 1982 -- Marquee Feature Audience Award, written and directed by Tommy Oliver.
  • Beside Still Waters -- Narrative Feature Audience Award, written by Chris Lowell and Mohit Narang and directed by Chris Lowell.

AFF Review: Nebraska


nebraska posterThe territory Alexander Payne explores in his films, that place where melancholy and outlandish human behavior collide, is once again accessed in his latest movie, Nebraska. Starring Bruce Dern as an aging alcoholic and Will Forte as his well-meaning son, the film meanders across the plains and valleys of family relationships, nostalgia and regret to reveal moments of sad beauty and awkward humor. 

Falling for a magazine marketing ploy, old Woody Grant (Dern) believes he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. Though his son David (Forte) knows it's simply junk mail, he has nothing better to do -- so he agrees to drive from Montana to Nebraska with his father to collect the money and let him find out the truth for himself. Along the mishap-laden journey, the two men visit Woody's hometown and encounter a cast of family and old friends.

Filmed in black and white in a landscape defined by sparseness and open space, Nebraska is filled with striking moments of stark desolation and piercing loneliness. Woody embodies these traits himself; he is a man who often tried his best over the years, but never shared himself with his wife and sons and mostly devoted himself to drinking instead. As David travels with his estranged father and finds out more about him, he is greeted with surprise after surprise and realizes he never knew much about Woody at all. The more he learns the more confused he becomes about his own life, which he seems to be passively enduring. 

Payne explores similar themes to the ones found in About Schmidt, but in that film he cleverly used an epistolary device to dive into the depths of his main character's head and heart. Unfortunately he has less success with revelation here; Woody remains largely inscrutable and distant, and David functions as a question-asker and chauffeur but doesn't get to do much else. Overshadowed by imagery (lovely as it is), the two main characters never feel fully formed in the ways that many of Payne's previous creations have been. 

AFF 2013 Dispatch: 'A Conversation with Jeff Nichols'


jeff nicholsMany Austin Film Festival-goers kicked off their week by attending one of the first panels on the schedule -- "A Conversation with Jeff Nichols." In a Q&A session that lasted a little over an hour on Thursday afternoon (it was moderated by Christopher Boone), the Austin-based director discussed the three films he has completed so far (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud) as well as his upcoming release, Midnight Special. As a writer and director who has achieved critical success while working with both small and big budgets, Nichols had plenty of advice and entertaining tidbits to share with the audience. 

Nichols, who comes off as both boyish and wise, eschews traditional film-school techniques (such as following a strict screenplay formula) but stresses the importance of adhering to certain personal storytelling rules. He described his process as beginning with various large ideas (masculinity, first love, financial anxiety, etc.) and then filtering them through a story that is ultimately about the characters he has created. Nichols' actual writing process involves arranging notecards filled with scenes and plot points and holding tightly to the idea of point of view.

Humble about his creative accomplishments and clearly knowledgeable about the business of making movies, Nichols made for a practically ideal AFF guest. The audience remained rapt and appreciative throughout, and this panel was an excellent reminder that AFF is all about dissecting the filmmaking process and appreciating good work. Here are a few highlights from the session:

  • Much to Nichols' disappointment, Shotgun Stories was rejected by both Sundance Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival. However, it was embraced at the Berlin International Film Festival and also screened here at AFF, where it received the Feature Film Award in 2007. 
  • Nichols often writes about white men (because he is one), but expressed the desire to include strong and realistic female characters in his work. That Jessica Chastain's character was domestically-oriented in Take Shelter was a reflection of his mother, who Nichols considers one of the strongest women he has known. 

AFF Interview: Michael Bilandic, 'Hellaware'


hellaware posterIn Hellaware, a sly comedy written and directed by University of Texas graduate Michael M. Bilandic, a young New York City photographer stumbles upon a crude and downright terrible YouTube video made by a group of suburban Delaware rappers. Oddly intrigued, he tracks them down in the hopes they'll offer up enough perfectly edgy material to help him break into the fancy art world scene, but all he really ends up exposing is his own naivete. 

Bilandic's second feature has already captured more attention than usual for an indie film thanks to a creative promotional strategy. Weeks before Hellaware's first screening, the filmmakers posted the music video featured in the movie (which they designed to be over-the-top and hilariously horrible), and sat back and watched as it amassed over 100,000 combined views. Commenters called it out for being vulgar and just plain bad, unaware they were critiquing something never meant to be taken seriously.

Hellaware stars Keith Poulson, Sophia Takal and Kate Lyn Sheil, and it will screen Friday, Oct. 25 (10:45 pm, Alamo Village) and Wednesday, Oct. 30 (9:45 pm, Hideout) during Austin Film Festival. Via email, I had the chance to ask Bilandic a few questions about the video experiment, his life as a filmmaker thus far, and what he's looking forward to seeing at AFF. 

Slackerwood: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker? 

Michael Bilandic: Yeah, pretty much, but I didn't really know what that meant. I remember reading some quote from Madonna a million years ago where she accused Abel Ferrara of sitting in a corner drinking wine while everyone else made the movie (Dangerous Game). I remember thinking, "Shit, I could do that! If that's what being a filmmaker is, I could get into that!" I honestly thought it would be some easy career.

Unfortunately, it's a lot harder than lurking around getting drunk. I actually wound up being Abel's assistant for a while, and it turns out he's one of the busiest and hardest working people ever. So the job description I was working with turned out to be wrong. I blame Madonna for disseminating that false info.

Review: After Tiller


after tillerThere are four doctors in the United States who openly and legally perform third-trimester abortions. They arrived at their positions not with long-standing intention, but rather due to chance and a stubborn sense of duty -- both to women and to murdered abortion doctor George Tiller. 

Tiller performed late-term abortions at his Wichita, Kansas women's health clinic for decades before he was fatally shot by an anti-choice activist in 2009. Though long the target of serious violence (Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993 and his clinic was firebombed in 1986) and also accused of criminal behavior (he was ultimately found not guilty), Tiller never abandoned his simple personal precept: "Women need abortions and I'm going to do them."

After Tiller, the humanistic documentary directed by Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, avoids discussing abortion from a political point of view and is not a tribute to the late Kansas physician. Instead, the film focuses on Drs. LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson and Shelley Sella -- former colleagues and friends of Tiller who have pledged to continue Tiller's mission to meet the needs of a very small group of women. 

Late-term abortions account for less than 1% of all abortions performed in this country, and most women who seek them have hearts overflowing with fresh grief. The late discovery of a serious fetal abnormality or a health issue that would threaten the lives of both mother and fetus necessitate consulting with a different doctor than their own, one whose office is likely far from home and surrounded by vocal protesters holding graphic signs.

Other women who seek the procedure do so for different reasons; they are victims of incest or rape, they suffer from emotional disorders, or sometimes they simply lack the financial and family resources to imagine giving birth to and raising a baby. No matter what brings a woman to one of these clinics, the road before her isn't going to be easy. 

The anti-abortion demonstrators who take issue with the doctors featured in After Tiller often embrace the idea that people who perform and seek abortions are cold, callous and disrespectful of life. The filmmakers quietly illustrate otherwise by observing these four as they go about their daily routines of speaking to and maybe treating women whose lives have not gone as planned. In these moments it's clear that agonizing decisions are made at these doctors' offices. God is frequently mentioned. There are tears and hugs. Ultimately, complicated gratitude is expressed.

AFF 2013: Spotlight on Austin and Texas Films


aff logoAustin Film Festival, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, features an eight-day program of panels and films specifically focused on screenwriters. Along with a handful of highly anticipated festival favorites bolstering the lineup (among them 12 Years a Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis), the film schedule contains dozens of features, documentaries and shorts chosen for their original points of view and creative storytelling techniques. Of course several of these have Austin or Texas ties -- they were either made by local filmmakers or were filmed in the state.

Here are a few potential gems found on this year's AFF Features lineup that happen to have strong Texas connections:

All of Me (Documentary Feature Competition) -- This documentary was filmed here in town and features a group of friends who met through Austin's Big Beautiful Women community. The dynamic of their social club begins to change when many of the women choose to undergo weight loss surgery, and what results is a poignant study of relationships, body image and societal norms. All of Me is directed by Alexandra Lescaze. 

Hellaware (Comedy Vanguard) -- Written and directed by University of Texas grad Michael Bilandic, Hellaware is a "biting satire of the art scene" and tells the story of a New York photographer who finds himself in a messy situation. The film stars a few familiar faces for indie fans: Keith Poulson (Harmony and Me, Somebody Up There Likes Me), Kate Lyn Sheil (Green, The Color Wheel, Somebody Up There Likes Me) and Sophia Takal (Gayby, V/H/S). 

Review: Don Jon


don jon posterDon Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's feature directorial debut, riffs on the idea of the traditional romantic comedy by giving its leading man (Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote the film) a life-dominating internet porn addiction. Though he holds fast to a squeaky clean gym/church/family routine and seems to be open to finding "the one," this sex-obsessed Jersey boy has no qualms about getting off whenever he can with the help of modern technology and a parade of anonymous women.

He also pursues real women as he prowls the bars each week (hence his "Don Jon" nickname), but only for one-night stands he can later brag about to his friends. Each Sunday, he nonchalantly confesses his activities to a priest, recites his penance while lifting weights and doing pull-ups, and then does it all again.

Jon's sin-and-repent cycle is knocked off course when he meets Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson, who does the blonde bombshell role perfectly). He falls for her purely based on her looks, but as opposed to the one-sided relationships he's used to having with the women he summons to his computer screen, Barbara has demands. She thinks he should further his education and get a better job. She wants their friends and family to meet. She loves seeing cute, dumb movies and makes him watch them, too.

At first Jon goes along with this new life plan, but one of her stipulations might be too much for him to handle. Barbara is appalled to find out he watches porn (even before she knows the extent of his habit) and tells him to stop. As beautiful as his new girlfriend is, Jon still craves the easy detachment of his longtime hobby, and it's soon clear that his porn addiction isn't so much a psychological condition as it is a signifier for the fact that he has no idea how to relate to people.

Because he is so emotionally stunted and Barbara's character is never given much to do besides be bossy while looking gorgeous, what follows is a journey that soon grows a little frustrating. It's hard to tell who Jon and Barbara really are -- do they even know? They saunter around with flashy confidence, but there's not a whole lot going on beneath the facade.

AFF's 20th Anniversary Lineup, from Award Winners to Low-Budget 'Jewels'


aff logoHighlights of the Austin Film Festival 2013 lineup, announced Tuesday, include Cannes Grand Prix winner Inside Llewyn Davis from former Austinites Joel and Ethan Coen, Toronto IFF favorite 12 Years a Slaveand the star-studded ensemble August: Osage CountyThe full lineup consists of over 70 features and over 100 short films, including several US and world premieres. 

Other eye-catchers selected for the 20th anniversary lineup include Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (starring Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela), Philomena (Stephen Frears' latest), a documentary directed by Whoopi Goldberg (HBO's Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley), and the previously announced Nebraska from Alexander Payne.

Films are presented in traditional categories like Marquee Screenings, Documentary Features, Comedy Vanguard and Dark Matters, and this year reveals a couple of new sections: Heart of Film and Write/Rec, which both highlight the best in low budget filmmaking and "out of competition jewels." (We were excited to see that Write/Rec selection 3 References comes from local filmmaker James Christopher, who guest blogged the film's shoot for Slackerwood.)

International Fests Provide a Preview of Texas Films


dallas buyers club

It's both fun and frustrating to follow the blogs and twitter updates of people attending fall film festivals (Venice Film Festival ended last week and Toronto International Film Festival ends Sunday). The abundance of fresh reviews being published online makes it easy to start building an "I wanna see that" list, but hearing critics' boasts and brags about their favorites can stir up a distracting amount of jealousy and impatience (that's true for this movie fan, anyway).

Luckily Austin ranks somewhat reasonably as a film city so we'll get to see many of these enticing movies soon enough (especially with Austin Film Festival just a few weeks away). While we wait, here's a list of titles with Texas or Austin connections that have been stirring up some buzz at recent festivals. As usual, it looks like our local filmmakers and actors are doing the Lone Star State proud. 

Dallas Buyers Club -- This based-on-a-true-story drama is set in Dallas and stars Austin regular (and future Oscar-nominee?) Matthew McConaughey. Based on the breathless reactions to its world premiere in Venice and North American premiere at TIFF, it's likely that Jean-Marc Vallee's film about HIV in 1986 is on its way to awards recognition of some kind. Between McConaughey's performance (and physical transformation -- he dropped a ton of weight for the shoot) and the dark subject matter (illness, homophobia, illegal drug smuggling) this one has critics all aflutter -- it actually has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes right now. 

A Look at the AFF 2013 Shorts Lineup (So Far)


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The full lineup for the 2013 Austin Film Festival has yet to be fully revealed, but the first wave of feature titles was announced a few days ago and news of the short film program has been inventively trickling out via the Twitter feeds of AFF Film Department Director Ryan Darbonne and Director of Programming Bears Fonte.

This week I checked in with Bears to find out more about the selections, which vary wildly in tone, style and worldview (that's a good thing, of course). He gave me brief descriptions of each film and also revealed which shorts have Texas and/or Austin connections. Whether you’re looking to push yourself to explore the unknown or just filling an empty time slot when you don’t know what else to see, sitting down for a couple of shorts programs is usually a smart film festival strategy. 

To help guide you a little, here's what we know about this year's promising AFF Short Films lineup:

  • Abandoned -- Haunted by memory, a Romantic grapples for meaning after the unexplained disappearance of his lost love.  
  • Barbie Boy -- A boy who plays with dolls is forced to reconsider things after his father tells him he's different.
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