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Written by Jane Wu

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The Austin City Limits Festival kicks off the first of two weekends for the very first time on Friday, October 4. With two weekends filled with nearly identical music lineups, will it be as crowded, more crowded, or—wishful thinking—slightly less crowded?

On a recent visit to Houston, I made plans with my sister, Jean to go the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see Titanic, The Artifact Exhibition before it leaves (on view through Sep. 23), and also explore the new Hall of Paleontology.

Long before the 1997 Oscar-winning film, I have always been fascinated with the history of the shipwrecked ocean liner and the class system within it. A traveling exhibit in honor of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, Titanic, The Artifact Exhibition contains items uncovered from the ship including clothing, jewelry, luggage and leather goods, stationery, perfume bottles (one of the bottles still bears a faint scent) and china used in the first-, second-, and third-class dining rooms. I learned that china imprinted with the simple, smart design of the ship’s White Star Line logo was served in third-class to discourage theft from passengers. (I must admit if I had been a passenger, the opposite would’ve been true!) The items for the most part are remarkably well-preserved, thanks to a combination of the type of chemicals used to tan leather suitcases a century ago, plus the enormous water pressure from the ocean floor helped form a tight seal around the trunks and cabinets containing the contents.

 

F.I.S.H. by Donald Lipski at I-35 underpass

TH's May cover story of San Antonio's River Walk reminded me of a recent visit to the area. After an evening of celebrating my nephew Will's graduation from medical school at Tower of the Americas Chart House, I intended to stop for a nightcap at the Esquire Tavern on the River Walk on the way back to the hotel.  But I overindulged and was ready to turn in for the night. By morning, I was rested and ready to take a stroll on the River Walk, with the goal to walk as far as the Museum Reach extension to see the art installations and recent additions to the area.

As I was covering SXSW Film for TH, I spent my time in line waiting to get into screenings to observe and chat with my queue-neighbors. Like my colleague Lori Moffatt, I attended most of the screenings with a film pass. I kept thinking about my experience as a music fan, going to free SXSW music shows and ACL Fest, and how rabid music fans differ from serial filmgoers, and what these tribes have in common.

Among the film-pass people I’ve met at various theaters, I found that they tend to be local Austinites. In contrast, more of the SXSW music fans, even the wristband- and badge-less, hail from out-of-town, and with ACL Fest it’s about even. Film-pass folks are loyal, too—many buy SXSW Film passes every year, much like ACL Fest goers. My cinephile friends Tina and Michael are in the film-pass camp, and they also get passes for the Austin Film Festival in the fall.

 

Photo by Peter Brown

Texas Photographers: Descriptions of China, now showing at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, offers  perceptive views of a vast and fast-developing nation through the eyes of five photographers whose careers and creative visions are widely varied: Peter Brown from Houston, Al Rendon, Ricardo Romo, and Ansen Seale from San Antonio, and Joel Salcido from Austin. I had a chance to view the exhibit with my daughter, Lucy, as Fiesta celebrations drew to a close.

The images, shot last fall in and around Shanghai, Lishui City, Wenzhou, and Beijing, were part of a cultural exchange between the Confucius Institute at The University of Texas at San Antonio and the China Photographers Association. The photographers were also invited to show their Texas work at the association’s International Photographic Art Exhibition in Lishui.

Liliana Saumet of Bomba Estereo at Auditorium Shores

As SXSW Film was winding down, I set aside time for some of the free SXSW music shows. I went to Thursday’s Auditorium Shores concert and saw M. Ward and later, the Shins. I was pleased and surprised by M. Ward’s high-energy set, and also the Shins’ recent addition, guitarist Jessica Dobson, who I think brings an edgier and more distinctive sound to not only the new material, but enhances their older hits without changing the structure. I also spent most of Friday afternoon at Waterloo Records, another major hub for free SXSW shows.  I heard Talib Kweli, Jimmy Cliff, Of Montreal, and Gary Clark Jr. play to a near-capacity crowd and all performed phenomenal shows. And I returned to Auditorium Shores one last time to hear Bomba Estereo perform a short but explosive set before heading to UT for the Big Easy Express film screening with Mumford & Sons headlining a live show.

Two big misses/goofs: I took a break for lunch around 4 and missed Father John Misty, who I later discovered is Josh Tillman, former member of the Fleet Foxes, one of my favorite bands. And I stuck around for the headliner, 80s’ hard-rock veterans the Cult, mistaking them for a younger indie pop band called the Cults. I felt so foolish, as the Cult took over a half-hour to set up and I had plans to meet friends on S. Congress. But the next day I felt somewhat vindicated when one of my young SXSW houseguests revealed to me that she and her friend made the same goof. Legions of middle-aged biker types surrounding the stage also tipped them off that maybe they weren’t here to see the same band!

In my previous post, I mentioned lucking into an added screening preview of the Will Ferrell comedy Casa de mi Padre.  Here, I’ll describe my experience at the red-carpet premiere of Bernie, at the Paramount Theatre.

Bernie is another made-in-TX film from director Richard Linklater and stars Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. Based on a true story (written by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly) about a bizarre murder in Carthage, I found this self-described dark comedy more funny than bleak, and gives humorous but good-natured insight into the mores of small-town life.  The film was shot in Bastrop, Smithville, Austin, Georgetown, and Carthage.

Linklater, McConaughey, Black and some of the other actors were on hand for red carpet interviews and photos ops as well as the screening. This was my first time at a full-blown movie premiere, but as expected, there was plenty of crowd frenzy and tight security keeping people away from the stars and from spilling into the street.  When I arrived an hour before the screening, the lines had stretched well past the corner.  But somehow, everyone seemed to get in, as witnessed by a scattering of empty seats in the balcony.

Jack Black at the SXSW Red Carpet premiere of "Bernie."

The premiere had an air of homecoming of sorts for Linklater and McConaughey, whose mother, Kay is also in the film and in attendance. More than a handful of local Central Texans appear in the film and it was refreshing to see “real folks” mingling with the stars in the lobby. I was touched to see both Linklater and McConaughey warmly hugging and greeting Flo, one of the Paramount’s longtime ushers.

Matthew McConaughey walks the Red Carpet.

In the film, Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director and beloved member of the community in the East Texas town of Carthage. Bernie has a penchant for providing companionship to the town’s rich widows, and MacLaine’s character, Marjorie Nugent, is the wealthiest and meanest of them all. Through Bernie’s tenacity, he wins Marjorie over with tickets to a Van Cliburn concert in Fort Worth, and they soon begin spending much time and Marjorie’s money together. Marjorie is so taken with Bernie that she signs over power of attorney and wills her fortune to Bernie, despite protests from her tight-fisted accountant (hilariously played by Richard Robichaux, also a Texan, born in Channelview). Marjorie becomes possessive and controlling, and keeps Bernie on a tight leash. Frustrated, Bernie inadvertently snaps and kills Marjorie with her gun. Panic-stricken, Bernie does what “any funeral director would do” with the body. In the meantime, he tells everyone, including her Marjorie’s family that she suffered a stroke and is convalescing out-of-town. As power of attorney, he uses Marjorie’s money to boost the coffers of the town’s college, churches, and police force. The accountant, Marjorie’s family and the D.A., played by McConaughey, soon become suspicious. Bernie is forced to open Marjorie’s home to be searched, and the body is discovered in a shocking state in the freezer. Bernie is arrested, but the town is in disbelief that he would do such a thing. The trial is moved south to San Augustine, yet the Carthage community still stands by their man.

I thoroughly enjoyed Linklater’s tongue-in-cheek, unmocking portrayal of small-town Texas. Black’s performance was brilliant, and is the most fully-realized character he’s played to date. McConaughey’s character role was understatedly deadpan and well-played.  MacLaine continues to shine in her versatile performance.

Along with another Texas film, Trash Dance, Bernie won a SXSW Special Award at the SXSW 2012 Film Awards. Bernie is scheduled for limited release April 27.  In the Q&A following the film, Linklater mentioned he hopes the movie will make it into small town theaters.

During the past few evenings, I’ve had the good fortune to catch some of the biggest SXSW Film comedy premieres. The first one is Casa de mi Padre, the telenovela spoof starring Will Ferrell.

Before I describe Casa, a little backstory: As much as I wanted to see this film, I had nixed it from my movie list because it had only one screening scheduled at Alamo Drafthouse Lamar at 5 p.m. Alamo Lamar has the reputation of being one of the “hard-to-get-into” SX-theaters because the auditoriums are smaller (the largest room seats 220, whereas the Paramount Theatre holds 1,200) and its south central location is just s SX Film-shuttle away from the Convention Center. But while checking seating availability online for another film on Virtual Status Board (vsb.sxsw.com), I noticed that there was a 7:15 showing of Casa. Alamo Lamar happened to be on my way home and it was just after 6, so I popped in to inquire about the screening. It happened that there was such a huge turnout for the 5 p.m show that a last-minute second show was added. Since the added screening was not on the film schedule, few people knew about it, and everyone in line got in, including ticket-buyers without badges or passes.

Filmed in Spanish with English subtitles, Ferrell plays Armando, a not-so-bright rancher of his father’s farm in Mexico. (Farrell, who doesn’t speak Spanish, had to learn the script and Spanish in a month.) His brother Raul, a successful businessman and his father’s favorite, returns home to introduce his beautiful fiancé to the family. It is soon revealed that Raul’s business involves drug-trafficking and is wanted by La Onza, a drug lord. To complicate matters more, Armando is smitten by Raul’s fiancé, and finds himself having to save Raul and the ranch. The use of patently fake backdrops, scale-model setups for wide-angle scenes, and animatronic wild animals, along with Ferrell’s brand of outright shameless silliness, only adds to the absurdity. Diego Luna plays Raul, and Gael Garcia Bernal plays La Onza. Both actors starred in the indie hit Y Tu Mama Tambien. While the subject of border violence is no laughing matter, I felt the film’s conclusion put a light-hearted, and even positive spin on improving border relations.

The film has just opened in limited release, and judging from audience response at the screening—loads of chuckles but few belly laughs, it’s probably not going to be a blockbuster like Talladega Nights or even Anchorman.  But I’m betting on the film achieving high cult status.

Look for my next post on Bernie, starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine, , directed by Richard Linklater and based on a true story about a small-town murder.

On the last two days of SXSW, I saw two more films, and one that combined two of my favorite SX components—film and music. Both films also happened to have scenes shot not only in Texas, but in Austin, close to home.

In Someone Up There Likes Me, director Bob Byington gives us a cockeyed, comical glimpse into 35 years of the lives of three people, and their predicaments and entanglements as they navigate through life. The timeline is prefaced with animation sequences, which adds to the film’s stylized, whimsical feel. The main character, Max, played by Keith Poulson, never physically ages through the years even as everyone around him does. The wry, deadpan dialogue, combined with Max’s detached observations as life’s pleasures and pain pass him by give the film a cerebral and surreal quality. Nick Offerman (from Parks and Recreation and at least one other SXSW film, Casa de mi Padre) also stars as Max’s friend, Sal. The part gives Offerman a wider character range to explore than what I’ve seen in his other work.

An added bonus: I didn’t realize how much of Someone was filmed in Austin, which makes sense since Byington lives here. I had fun picking out signs for various Austin spots such as Royal Blue Grocery and Justine’s. Also, a scene was filmed in Smithville, across from the “Tree of Life” house, according to Byington at the Q&A after the film. And Austin musician Bob Schneider does a hilarious turn as an over-the-top wedding singer. The film does not yet have a release date. Byington also directed the indie fave Harmony & Me, which was shown at the Austin Film Festival in 2009.

Old Crow Medicine Show performs prior to Big Easy Express screening at LBJ Library lawn.

BIG EASY EXPRESS. Part concert, part road-trip film by Emmett Malloy, which follows three acclaimed indie-folk/roots-revival bands, Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show as they tour by vintage train to six destinations, replicating the journey of the old railroad-revival tour days, and enjoying the camaraderie. The tour begins west in Oakland, and concludes in New Orleans, making two Texas stops: Marfa and Austin. I’m not a fan of concert films, preferring the live experience.  However, the sweeping, scenic landscapes of Northern California, the desert Southwest, and the distinctive West Texas terrain are breathtaking. I also enjoyed the Marfa scenes of the water tower and the courthouse, as well as the astounding sight of 2,000 fans attending the show in a remote field (which, according to the tour website, is roughly equal to the town’s population). In addition, both screenings at the Paramount Theatre and at UT’s LBJ Library lawn included live performances by all three bands.

I went to the LBJ Library event, where thousands packed the lush lawn to hear a two-hour performance by Edward Sharpe and Mumford after the film. In the Austin segment of the film, members of Mumford & Sons visit the Austin High School Band, and both perform for and with each other in the high school band hall, as well as at an outdoor concert. The Austin High Band was also there for the after-film show and performed with Mumford & Sons for their finale. This was a personal thrill for me, and my daughter Lucy, who was with me, as she is an AHS Band alumna. From our view on the hill overlooking the nighttime crowd, the scattering of lights emanating from smart phones shooting video mementos reminded me of an earlier era, when audiences flicked their Bic lighters in appreciation.

Even as the SXSW Film Festival has grown from its Texas roots and become a global showcase, I can’t help but notice the large number of films this year that have origins in Texas or were produced here. Either Texas has become a significant part of the film world, or the film world has become a significant part of Texas.

My SXSW Film journey started off slowly—I admit, rain plus crowds were enough to deter me from my usual energetic approach to mega-festivals. (Overheard in line on Sunday: “Glad the sun came out today. Was beginning to think this was South-By-South-Wet!”)  Also, I want to save my strength for SXSW Music this week.

Three of the five films I’ve seen so far have Texas ties: The Imposter, America’s Parking Lot, (also mentioned in my earlier post, SXSW Film—A Texas Preview) and The Taiwan Oyster. Here are my thoughts on the Texas-related films I’ve seen so far:

My first screening was the documentary-thriller The Imposter, at Alamo Drafthouse Lamar on Saturday. Based on the 1994 case of a missing San Antonio teen, Nicholas Barclay, who is presumed found in Spain three years later, the story is told through the young Frenchman, Frédéric Bourdin, who assumes the boy’s identity in order to escape imprisonment for similar false identity offenses. Bourdin also longs to experience the idyllic childhood deprived of him, having been abused and abandoned early in life. I’m not usually a fan of thrillers or Hard Copy-type shows, but I found the film intense and riveting, with occasional moments of levity. A San Antonio private investigator, Charlie Parker, is the first to expose Bourdin’s identity (with the help of Adobe Photoshop) and his candor and humor, despite the grim situation nearly steals the show.  I also discovered that I was sitting next to Parker and his wife during the screening, and had a nice chat with them. Parker and the director, Bart Layton answered questions after the film.

America’s Parking Lot, (photo at top) a documentary that’s part-drama, part-comedy focuses on two of the truest Cowboy fans and super-tailgators you could ever meet, Stan "Tiger" Schults and Cy Ditmore.  I’m a passing sports fan at best (and former Houstonian who occasionally roots for the Texans) but I came away feeling much empathy and a bit of sadness for what these guys lost when Texas Stadium imploded and Cowboys Stadium replaced it. Tiger and Cy were in attendance at the Canon Screening Room along with first-time director, Austin actor Jonny Mars. Before their Q&A, Tiger Schults led the audience in a boisterous Cowboys pep rally. Even this fair-weather Texan fan can get behind that!

The Taiwan Oyster may not sound like a movie with a Texas connection, but the director, Mark Jarrett is a 10-year Austin resident. Based on his expat years as a kindergarten teacher in Taichung (Austin's sister city) during and after the 1999 earthquake, this offbeat road trip movie follows two friends and a young Taiwanese-British woman they meet as they set out to find a proper burial home in the Taiwan countryside for a fellow American they barely knew. At times the film feels meandering, but the lush, green mountainous landscapes are breathtaking, and the culture-clash episodes are amusing, as is the juxtaposition of old-school American country and rockabilly as the film’s soundtrack.

I also saw a couple of non-Texas films: SELLEBRITY and See Girl Run.

SELLEBRITY is an eye-opening documentary, which covers the preposterous lengths paparazzi go to fuel our obsession with celebrities, and how that fuel is generated by the media and unwittingly, by fans. The film also documents the history of the public’s fascination for star gossip, beginning with Mary Pickford and the silent film era. Musician Sheryl Crow is one of several stars who appear in the film, and made a surprise appearance with the director (and noted celeb photographer) Kevin Mazur and his crew to answer questions after the premiere. Gilberto Petrucci, one of the original paparazzo who inspired Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, also appears in the film and was at the Q&A.

See Girl Run: Described as “what happens when a 30-something woman allows life's "what ifs" to overwhelm her appreciation for what life actually is,” and “… digging into her romantic past in hopes of invigorating her present,” I was expecting more of a chick-flick comedy. Instead, the film was more of a romantic indie drama about the relationship road not taken, as viewed not only from the lead character, Emmie, but her brother, parents, and grandmother as well. Robin Tunney (of The Mentalist) plays Emmie, and Adam Scott (of Parks and Recreation and just-released film Friends With Kids) plays the “one who got away.” Nate Meyer directed the film, and was set and shot in Maine and in Brooklyn.  I admired the film’s ending montage of waterfronts, boat docks, and small-town street scenes, which seemed to evoke an Edward Hopper-esque quality.

Before this SX Film coverage for TH, I have never seen more than one or two films during the film festival, and the last time I went was more than ten years ago. It’s been a fun and fascinating experience meeting all sorts of film-goers in line, elderly couples, teens accompanied by parents, women as well as men going solo, as well as the stereotypical groups of hipsters in black leather. I enjoyed lots of discussions and tips on which movies to see from my new film friends. Heard much buzz about KID-THING, Trash Dance (also see Lori Moffatt’s latest blog), Los Chidos, and Girl Walk // All Day.

But I’m not done yet. Check back for more SX Film insights and observations.

The SXSW Film Conference & Festival 2012 begins in Austin on Friday, March 9 (along with SXSW Interactive) and runs through the 17th. SXSW Film brings together up-and-coming and veteran filmmakers, industry dealmakers, actors and celebrities of all stripes, serious film geeks, and avid moviegoers with a taste for discovery. Since its inception in 1994, the conference and fest has emerged as a major player on the U.S. and international film festival circuit, with small-budget indie films given equal buzz with premieres of more mainstream releases.

Although SX Film is global in its movie offerings, there are usually a few Made-in-Texas or Set-in-Texas film screenings. Here is a list for those wanting a more Tex-centric movie experience. (See Lori Moffatt's blog, Pass to Inspiration for tips on getting the most out of your SX Film viewing, whether you have a badge, film pass, or purchase tickets at the venue.) Also, don't be surprised if you see the director, cast or film crew in attendance at these films. (And that includes some of the bigger premieres, like Killer Joe and Bernie.)

The Imposter:  Documentary-thriller about a missing San Antonio teen, found alive in Spain three years later but may not be who he appears, unbeknownst to his own family. The Imposter has received critical acclaim since its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and is scheduled for theatrical release later this year.

Killer Joe:  Texans Matthew McConaughey and Thomas Haden Church star in a dark comedy set in Dallas County involving a crazy cop who moonlights as a hit man. Directed by William Friedkin (of The Exorcist, The French Connection fame). Premiered at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival. SXSW U.S. Premiere. If you go, get there early. This is the only SX screening, and some of the stars, including Matthew McConaughey are scheduled to be there.

Trash Dance:  Austin sanitation workers perform a choreographed dance performance using garbage trucks on an abandoned airport runway in this quirky documentary. SXSW World Premiere.

America's Parking Lot: Directed by Austinite Jonny Mars, a documentary about how America's Team's move to Cowboy Stadium profoundly affects two rabid Cowboys fans. SXSW World Premiere, and in case you miss it, also screens at Dallas International Film Festival, April 12-22.

Blue Like Jazz:  Set in suburban Houston, a college student leaves his religious upbringing for "the most godless campus in America" in the Pacific Northwest. Based on the New York Times bestseller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, who also funded the film with help from donations via Kickstarter. SXSW World Premiere.

Bernie: A dark comedy about an assistant funeral director in Carthage who befriend, and later disposes of "the town's richest widow." Shot in Austin, Bastrop, Smithville, Georgetown, and Carthage, directed by renowned filmmaker and Bastrop resident Richard Linklater, and starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey. As with Killer Joe, this is the only SX showing, and some of the cast, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, along with Richard Linklater, will be in attendance.

Texas Shorts: Nine short films with a total 93 minutes run time. The subjects range from The Guessing Game, set in a retirement home where a resident's birthday reveals more than his age, to Tumbleweed, "The true and historically accurate tale of one tumbleweed that did not tumble."

As Siskel and Ebert used to say, "See you at the movies!"

Illustration by Christopher Jagmin

For Chinese New Year, Year of the Dragon 2012, my daughter Lucy, my boyfriend David and I celebrated with dinner at Asia Cafe in Austin.  Asia Cafe serves Sichuan (or Szechuan) Chinese cuisine, known for its hot and spicy seasonings.  The Chinese food here is by far the most authentic I’ve had in Austin—both in taste and presentation.

Asia Cafe is simple and casual: walk up to the counter, grab a menu and place your order. The number of items listed start at 115 and go through the 800s!  Luckily, I had a few dishes in mind: Whole Fish with Spicy Bean Sauce (which I had on a previous visit: succulent and flavorfully spicy), House Special Green Beans (Chinese long beans), and Sesame Tofu.  The entrée portions are generous, in keeping with the Chinese tradition of serving dishes family-style, so for the three of us, this was plenty.  Drinks (water, tea and soda only) and utensils are self-serve, along with small bowls—not plates—for sharing (another touch of authenticity: in Chinese households, meals are typically eaten from bowls).

As it turned out, the Whole Fish with Spicy Bean Sauce had already sold out, as this dish is considered “lucky” to eat for the New Year. So we went with a similar entrée on the specials board, House Whole Fish with Garlic and Peppers. When our meal was ready to be picked up at the counter, the fish arrived on an enormous platter, ringed with copious amounts of soft garlic cloves (the mild taste and texture reminded me of miniature new potatoes) and tiny cherry peppers in a piquant peppercorn sauce.  The tasty long beans had that just-right crunchy-yet-tender texture, and the delicately-seasoned sesame tofu was firm, with a crispy coating.

As expected, Asia Cafe was buzzing on this New Year’s night. A couple of private rooms off to the side hosted festive gatherings (and brought their own wine), and the line at the counter was continuous but quick.  As in most “authentic” Asian restaurants, groups of Chinese diners were in attendance, but I also saw many non-Asians, possibly those from other cities who’ve had a taste of China and craving the real deal.

Asia Café is a bit of a trek from my home in south Austin, but well worth it.  Next time I won’t wait until Lunar New Year (2013 is Year of the Snake) to get my Chinese food fix.

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