Theatrical and DVD reviews.

AFF Review: The Scenesters


The Scenesters

I knew Todd Berger as a filmmaker who'd grown up in New Orleans and made the 2007 documentary Don't Eat the Baby about post-Katrina Mardi Gras, a movie that I quite liked. But since that was the only film of his I'd seen, I always thought of him as a documentary kind of guy. I didn't know that he's a member of comedy troupe The Vacationeers -- I would never have imagined that he would write and direct a noir-mumblecore-L.A. homage comedy, The Scenesters.

The Scenesters opens with a fake trailer that spoofs "mumblecore" films mercilessly, then shifts to a jury trial, then flashes back to tell the main story of the film. The filmmakers behind the mumblecore movie are having financial troubles, and director Wallace Cotten (Todd Berger) is forced to take a job filming crime scenes for the LAPD. However, Wallace and his producer Roger (Jeff Grace) can't settle for straightforward work, and next thing we know, they're making a movie about what they've decided is a serial-killing spree. Their focus is Charlie (Blaise Miller), a guy who cleans up crime scenes, and who used to date news anchor Jewell Wright (Susanne May). Charlie has noticed that all the crime-scene victims are blonde hipster females.

AFF Review: Stoner


Michael in Stoner

When I moved to Austin in 1993, I was stunned by the overwhelming and fairly open marijuana use, especially amongst my fellow UT classmates. Apparently that hasn't changed much, as evidenced in UT graduate Michael Greene's first feature film about his college experiences in the indie comedy Stoner. Greene writes, directs, and acts in this film, which centers around the lead character Michael as he prepares for graduation. How he's managing to graduate is a mystery, since he's more of a "wake and bake" stoner with a dead-end job in a copy center, unable to get to work on time.

AFF Review: Harmony and Me


Harmony and Me

It's a little strange that I'm writing a review for Harmony and Me immediately after reviewing (Untitled) -- both movies are about music, and use music to explain their characters' state of mind. Harmony and Me is more subtle and uses music in a more personal, straightforward way -- the characters are the focus.

Harmony and Me is the latest film from Austin writer/director Bob Byington (RSO [Registered Sex Offender]). Many of us in Austin have been waiting to see this locally shot film since its premiere at New Films/New Directors in New York last April. Byington was unhappy with the projection quality at AFF, and I hope to see it again someday in a setting that the director feels does justice to his film. However, I was still able to enjoy the film.

Review: (Untitled)



"What is art?" is one of those eternal questions that you have to be at a certain kind of party to discuss without feeling totally pretentious. Lots of people use the question to denigrate certain types of art -- the "my kid can paint that" school of snark. (Untitled), which opened Friday at Arbor, asks the question in a playful way, and the ensuing "discussion" of the film is more enjoyable than you might think.

See, now you're all turning away because I've made it sound like this is some upscale-y film that drones on about Art. No. Stay with me, here. (Untitled) is from the same filmmakers who brought us the curious adaptation of Bartleby starring Crispin Glover, back in 2001 -- co-writer/director Jonathan Parker and writer Catherine DiNapoli -- and their latest movie is slightly less strange and has more sly humor.

Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg) is a composer whose atonal music features sounds from chains hitting a bucket, children's toys, and torn paper. His quartet makes the Triplets of Belleville look positively conventional. His brother Josh (Eion Bailey) is a more conventionally successful artist, who paints large canvases that are snapped up by hospitals and hotels. Josh is trying to date his art dealer Madeleine (Marley Shelton), who's happy to make money from his work but focus on increasingly strange exhibitions in her gallery. Adrian dislikes her at first -- she's always wearing clothes that make disruptive sounds, like plastic coats or noisy high heels -- but gradually that starts to change.

Review: The Fourth Kind


After the phenomenal success of Paranormal Activity, audiences are hungering for the next sensational film experience, and by the trailers, The Fourth Kind wants to be it. Unfortunately, it's an incoherent mess that overreaches its potential.

The pretense is that a newly widowed psychologist, Abbey Tyler, is continuing with her husband's work and notices eerie similarities among some patients, resulting in horrifying discoveries that suggest alien abductions.  It's hard to avoid that conclusion early, because the all the trailers and marketing material emphasizes that. 

Review (Sort Of): Gentlemen Broncos


Gentlemen Broncos

I'm one of those people who screw up Netflix's "Movies You'll Love" programming: I can't stand Napoleon Dynamite. It's too sitcom-y, the characters' quirks have no basis in character depth or complexity, and it's just plain annoying. Gentlemen Broncos, the latest comedy from the same writers and director as Napoleon Dynamite -- Jared and Jerusha Hess -- has many of the same problems, and adds a giant dose of gross-out humor to boot.

The story focuses on high-schooler Benjamin (Michael Angarano), who is somewhat out of step with his peers. He wants to be a science-fiction writer like his hero, Dr. Roland Chevalier (Jemaine Clement). Ben's been writing a series of books about Bronco, a warrior hero who seems to resemble Ben's departed dad. His mother (Jennifer Coolidge) tries to encourage him, but has little attention to spare from her work designing and selling nightgowns.

Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats

I've watched The Men Who Stare at Goats twice at this point -- once at the Fantastic Fest screening where the film lacked credits and color correction, and once in its final release-ready version. And here's the thing: I enjoyed watching the movie both times, and some moments were truly fantastic ... but the movie does not quite hang together. It may be fun to watch, but overall it doesn't quite work. It's a mystery.

The movie opens with the words "More of this is true than you think" (or something to that extent -- you'd think after two viewings I'd write these details down), and this is not idle boasting. The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on a nonfiction book by Jon Ronson about some odd, New Age-y programs the U.S. military started in the 1980s, and how certain aspects of these programs lingered on and were used by the U.S. in Iraq in this decade. Ronson is in the book only as an interviewer; he doesn't bring much of his personal life into the book.

AFF Review: Calvin Marshall


Calvin Marshall

At first glance, writer/director Gary Lundgren's Calvin Marshall could be mistaken for just another "baseball movie," but this poignant and humorous film delivers much more. Baseball is the focus of the main character, yet the heart of this film, which had its world premiere at Austin Film Festival, is more about passion and human nature.

Title character Calvin (Alex Frost) lives and breathes baseball, getting up before dawn to practice -- unfortunately it's a lost cause, as he just doesn't have the skills for the local junior college baseball team. Despite his gruff exterior, the team's head coach (Steve Zahn) has a soft spot for Calvin, and can't bring himself to cut him from the team despite the constant urgings of his assistant Coach Dewey (Abraham Benrubi).

AFF Review: Cummings Farm


Cummings Farm

Funny things happen on the way to an orgy.  Three young couples, in various levels of committment, decide to have an orgy over a weekend getaway at Cummings Farm. Why, it's not clear, but what what happens up to the moment of truth reveals more about the intended participants than anyone ever expected.

Alan and Yasmine are dating, Tina and Todd are married with children, and Rachel and Gordon are living together. Even before everyone arrives at the farm, it's clear that no one really thought out the consequences of a sexual free-for-all. Rachel (Aimee-Lynn Chadwick) is supportive of Gordon (Jordan Kessler), but he's an alcoholic. Alan (Adam Busch) is uptight, and Yasmine (Yasmine Kittles) is demanding. Tina (Laura Silverman) is the devoted wife and mother, and how the crude and selfish Todd (Ted Beck) managed to win her is a mystery. These are three very different relationships, none of which will survive unaltered by the experience.

AFF Review: The Donner Party


The Donner Party

The obvious approach for a film about the Donner Party, one of the most infamous stories of deadly misadventure in American history, would be horror. But in T.J. Martin's The Donner Party, an Austin Film Festival selection, the historic event gets a well deserved dramatic approach that makes it all the more unsettling. 

Like most dramatic retellings, the ultimate end is known, but the journey, quite literally in this case, is more important than the end result. Several groups of pioneers converged to form the Donner Party on the way to California, but after following a "new" route, ended up stranded in the Sierra Nevadas through the winter and spring of 1846.

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