Local Indies

Hill Country Film Festival Highlights Texas

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Intramural

It's time again to start thinking about the Hill Country Film Festival, which runs from April 30-May 4 in Fredericksburg. I just booked my B&B (although is it really a B&B if there's no breakfast? B&NB, perhaps?) and am looking forward to the coziest film festival I've attended.

HCFF is always fun for me because I don't have to rush from venue to venue, the parties are small and people are very friendly, and the audiences always seem to be excited about the movies. The fest is using two theaters this year, but they're not far apart, although it means some tough decision-making is in order.

Austin-shot feature Intramural (pictured at top) is one of the fest's highlights this year. The closing-night film is directed by Andrew Disney, who was at HCFF 2012 with his comedy Searching for Sonny, and written/produced by Bradley Jackson, whose short The Man Who Never Cried screened at HCFF 2012 (both movies on the same day, in fact). Intramural, which debuted at Tribeca Film Festival this week, is about fifth-year college seniors participating in intramural sports.

Dallas IFF Reviews: 'Tomato Republic' and 'Cowboys of Color'

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Tomato Republic Rob GowinIn the crumbling small town of Jacksonville, known as the Tomato Capital of Texas, a speeding train is coming -- not the frequent trains residents hear almost continually, but a heated mayoral race.

That's the premise of Tomato Republic, a documentary featurette that premiered at the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), where it won a special jury award. Directed by Jenna Jackson, Anthony Jackson and Whitney Graham Carter, Tomato Republic focuses on the mayoral race between three candidates -- incumbent Kenneth Melvin, outspoken restaurateur Rob Gowin, and Kenneth Melvin, the youngest candidate and first African-American to run for the (unpaid) office.

The town's colorful characters are the most engaging part of this film, whether it's the three candidates or the "Rusk Rocket Scientists," who hang out and gossip at local establishments.

I found myself most amused by the filmmaker and interviewees acknowledging the trains running past the town that would often interrupt the filming. When the trains run so often that football games and high-school graduations are impacted, it's ingenious to integrate that frequent occurrence into a documentary.

Review: Joe

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Joe posterFilmmaker David Gordon Green has shot two films in Central Texas now (well, three, but only two are out yet), and he gets it. He really does. For both Prince Avalanche and now Joe, he took stories that could be set anywhere and ground them in local rural settings, with characters played by residents who weren't previously professional actors. The most affecting scene in Prince Avalanche was the one in the ruins with Joyce Payne.

In Joe, I felt like I could drive 30 miles and find the unnamed town in which the film was set, with all its characters intact. In such a setting, the lead actors fit in and feel like characters, not stars. Even Nicolas Cage

Cage plays the title character, whose job is leading a team of laborers to clear a forest for development -- hacking at trees with axes that contain poisonous liquids. He's approached by Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager in a family of drifters squatting in an abandoned shack. Gary wants to join Joe's work gang, needing money to help his family, because his perpetually drunk-and-enraged father (Gary Poulter) can't do it.

It's a simple story when I lay it out that way, but the story isn't the point here, it's the characters and the way they reveal themselves as the movie progresses, especially Joe. He's oddly passive at times, letting matters run their course in their own way. And yet some people and things affect him like dropping a match in gasoline. Don't even ask about the dog in the whorehouse. (That's a sentence I never expected to write.)

For someone who's seen too many hysterically overdone performances from Cage, his work as Joe is amazing, reminding us that when he's well directed in a well-written role, he's a marvel. He manages to portray a man keeping his passions under wraps and even when he does let loose, it's in a way that isn't histrionic. He doesn't dominate the film, either -- Sheridan holds up against him perfectly in their scenes together. But even in scenes with his work gang, or in a small grocery, the other characters get to shine.

Chatting with Nicolas Cage, David Gordon Green and the 'Joe' Cast

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Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, and David Gordon Green of 'Joe'

After a series of premieres across the country including SXSW and Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), Joe opens today in Austin at the Violet Crown Cinema and Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter. Based on the novel by Larry Brown, this dark drama reveals the raw and often brutal nature of an impoverished family and what happens when a damaged man becomes involved in the family drama.

The leads of Joe are veteran star Nicolas Cage in the title role and Texas' up-and-coming young actor Tye Sheridan (Tree of Life, Mud) as Gary. Cage, Sheridan and Austin-based director David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche) spoke to members of the press at a conference during SXSW last month. I also spoke with several cast members at the recent DIFF premiere.

Green said he was attracted to the script for Joe because it struck him as "a great contemporary western, a genre that I’ve always been drawn to." He was already familiar with Brown's novel, and had even worked on a documentary about the author.

Dallas IFF 2014: David and Nathan Zellner, 'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter'

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Nathan and David Zellner at Sundance

Writing and directing team Nathan and David Zellner (pictured above) have been to film festivals all over the world recently with their latest narrative, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (my review) -- from Sundance in Park City to Berlin, Buenos Aires and Austin for SXSW. This week the film screens at the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF) on Friday, April 11, and Saturday, April 12.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter stars Rinko Kikuchi as a lonely young woman disconnected from her coworkers and the traditional culture of Tokyo. Her obsession with the mythical treasure from the movie Fargo leads her on a journey well outside her comfort zone and knowledge, through the United States.

I spoke with Nathan and David Zellner last month when Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter screened at SXSW Film Festival in Austin. Here's what they had to say about the film.

Violet Crown Cinema Debuts Texas Spotlight Film Series

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flutter film posterIt makes welcome sense that a locally owned and operated movie theater would present a program that highlights its home state while also supporting one of its own Austin friends. Violet Crown Cinema has announced a new ongoing film series called Texas Spotlight, which will feature the work of Texas filmmakers and Texas-based films.

Three monthly screenings have been announced so far, and all ticket sales from these initial shows will be donated to a fund for Evan West, a Violet Crown employee severely injured in the March 13 hit-and-run on Red River Street. 

This first trio of films features two newer selections and one retrospective screening, and all three directors hail from Texas (either Austin or Dallas). Tickets are available here

Read on for screening details and descriptions (provided by Violet Crown), and stay in touch for updates about future Texas Spotlight screenings. If you'd like to donate directly to the Evan West fund, you can do so here

  • Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self, April 22 -- When invited by an old friend to speak to a struggling sales team at a conference, Bob Birdnow (veteran Dallas actor Barry Nash) reluctantly agrees. Bob's attempt to say something motivational takes an unexpected turn when, forced off script and desperate, he begins the one story he'd hoped he'd never have to tell. This adaptation of a one-man show won the Ron Tibbett Award for Excellence in Filmmaking at the Indie Memphis Film Festival. (Director: Eric Steele, 2013)
  • Flutter, May 13 -- To treat her son, Johnathan, who suffers from a degenerative eye condition, JoLynn must break society's laws. With her husband away indefinitely, JoLynn struggles to nurture her son in the face of poverty, isolation and incarceration. Flutter explores the truest love on earth -- the love of a mother and child. (Director: Eric Hueber, 2014)
    Note: Debbie recently caught this one at the Dallas International Film Festival and highly recommends it.

What's Streaming: Fools on Film

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I hate jokes and anyone who makes them. Having a sense of humor has always disgusted me, and is one trait in people that I absolutely cannot stand. It's an automatic deal breaker for me when, after just having met someone, they crack a joke or use a bit of sarcasm in an effort to be impressive. If you're one of these people, we probably haven't gotten along very well (and that's probably why I never called or texted you back). It truly is the one thing I can't stand.

... Okay, that was my belated April Fools joke for you all. Who am I kidding? I love joking around with people, and will always be the first to lighten the mood in a room (or at least try to). In keeping with that tone for the month, I found myself watching a lot of films lately that have rather foolish protagonists. Some of them are jerks, some just don't have a clue. Some of them are just too young to know what's right and what's wrong. We've all acted foolishly in our own lives, and sometimes we might not realize it until we see someone acting the same way.

I'm not saying these movies will make you realize you're a fool. But, maybe they'll cause you to reflect on those elements of yourself that you didn't realize you had. Who knows -- you might just make some improvements this month.

Lone Star Cinema: An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story

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An Unreal Dream

If you spent nearly 25 years in prison for a crime you didn't commit, would you be bitter?

Michael Morton isn't. Which is surprising, given that he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, spent almost 25 years behind bars and would remain there today if not for the tenacious attorneys who won his release.

Morton's frightening ordeal is the subject of An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, a moving 2013 documentary  released on DVD April 1. More than just a recounting of Morton's astonishing and infuriating story, the film is a meditation on faith and redemption.

The film's title is based on a quote from United States Justice Learned Hand: "Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream." But "an unreal dream" is too tepid a description of Morton's suffering; his story is in every way a nightmare.

SXSW 2014: A Different Kind of 'Two Step'

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Austin was filmmaker Alex R. Johnson's "something better" from the hustle and bustle of New York City life. Johnson had searched for a city that wouldn't necessarily compete with his memories of the Big Apple, but for a community of like-minded individuals that weren't worried about their role on Law & Order. His dear pal and composer Andrew Kenny, aka Kenny, also made the move with his wife last year after an extended SXSW trip. The house that Kenny and his wife bought became the fictional home of a character in his and Johnson's latest movie Two Step (Don's review).

"I didn't really know what I was getting myself into," Kenny said.

That may have been an understatement. Once a truck and generator showed up at the Kenny home, they knew they were in for surprises. Memories of the ten-day shoot at their house continue to show up in the form of fake blood droplets.

"Still finding blood but no damage," Kenny said. "There's a little bit by the front door... it's gonna stay there." To Kenny's wife, it's kind of like Christmas, finding needles from the tree months later, Johnson said. 

SXSW Review: Road to Austin

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Road to AustinAustin is called the "Live Music Capital of the World," and a very large influence on it was singer/songwriter Stephen Bruton. In 2007, only a week after completing his treatment for throat cancer and in his final appearance on stage, Bruton led his band through a four-hour, 38-song "Road to Austin" performance in front of 20,000 fans. Director Gary Fortin covers the concert and history of the Austin music scene from 1835 to today in Road to Austin, which premiered at SXSW 2014.

Beginning with Kris Kristofferson and John Paul DeJoria relating their experiences, Fortin weaves photos and film footage from the earliest days of Austin into a vivid tapestry. Artists recount tales of legendary venues, some now gone, including Threadgill's, Antone's, the Armadillo World Headquarters, Broken Spoke, Continental Club and Saxon Pub.

Road to Austin explores how the city became, like a microcosm of the United States, a musical melting pot where country, blues, Latino and psychedelic influences combined and grew, creating a unique scene and a strong community.

The interviews and history serve as an introduction to footage from the concert itself, where Bruton takes the stage with his band and a host of 60 star performers. The festival cut of the film includes eight songs emceed by Turk Pipkin. Blues, country, even an operatic performance by Cara Johnston are represented, but the peak of the concert has to be Malford Milligan's performance. When Milligan sings Bruton's "Bigger Wheel," you can't help jumping and dancing along. The energy is infectious and powerful.

The full concert includes artists Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Joe Ely, Eric Johnson, David Grissom, Bob Schneider, Carolyn Wonderland, Raul Salinas, Bobby Whitlock & CoCo Carmel, Lisa Hayes, Joel Guzman & Sarah Fox, Ian Mclagan, James Hand, Ruthie Foster, and the Tosca String Quartet.

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