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Texas Creatives add Pulse to SXSW

Written by | Published March 21, 2012

The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, talks about his musical roots and the diversity of music today. (Photo by Danny Clinch)

With more than 2000 bands to choose from at SXSW this year, there was no way anyone could have seen even a small fraction of it all, and if Bruce Springsteen was right in his assessment during his keynote speech, the odds were 50/50 that you’d either stumble upon the best band in the world or … “They suck!”  It’s hard to agree on music these days, he says, after rattling off a breath-defying cache of subgenres, like “alternative metal, avang-garde metal, black metal, black and death metal, Christian metal, heavy metal, funk metal, glam metal, Medieval metal, indie metal, melodic death metal, metalcore, rap metal …”

His speech offered an endearing education on the history of music from his personal influences – do wap, blues, gospel, Woodie Guthrie, the British Invasion – to the plethora of sounds that have manifested since.

Having been a bit haphazard in my SXSW music picks, I know of what The Boss speaks. SXSW puts it all out there on the streets of Austin. It was easy to weed out what was or wasn’t going to be interesting, if even bearable, just by the sounds bellowing out of venues. But so much was good, even if I felt like an antique in some crowds.  I will say you can enjoy SXSW without a badge (some venues offer cover charges, too), but I appreciated the flexibility a badge afforded me - allowing me to pop in and out of venues without feeling committed to something that might not be my style.

Some of the highlights for me, though, turned out to be homegrown Texas talent – both new and legendary (What happened to all those unsigned bands of yore?).

The Heartless Bastards help give credence to Texas talent. (Photo by Lois M. Rodriguez)

I’m really excited about San Antonio’s trio Girl in a Coma, who are signed to Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records label. Sisters Phanie and Nina Diaz, along with longtime friend Jen Alva have been making strides over the past few years, but I see even bigger and better things ahead for them. Others agree. They are nominated for two Independent Music Awards for Best Independent/Alternative Rock Album and Best Independent/Alternative Rock Song. Going to keep an eye on them.

And my heart just loves listening to Austin’s Quiet Company, named the 2011-2012 Best Band of the Year at the Austin Music Awards. They are touting their CD, “We Are All Where We Belong.” Luckily, amid so many choices, they had three time slots slated to make it easy to catch them.

Kat Edmonson, who I saw in hybrid interactive-music setting for a SXSW-meets-TED conference session at the Driskill Hotel, is another favorite.  The session was touted as an "intersection between humanity and technology" that "allows us to rediscover our human connections amid the tech-enthusiasm of SXSW." With some of the boldest thinkers and most interesting minds from the SXSW community taking the stage, Edmonson set the tone with her unique, lilting voice. I feel like I’ve tuned in to 1930s radio. It’s akin to Billie Holliday, and I find it refreshing.

Richard Linklater and I at the celebratory party after the "Bernie" screening at SXSW. (Photo by Jane Wu)

I also enjoyed music that was mixed with the highly-charged atmosphere like those hosted by well-knowns. Film director Richard Linklater – a native of Houston – hosted a party after the screening of his new film “Bernie,” which stars Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine.

Linklater, who founded the Austin Film Society, also brought us films like “Slackers,” “Dazed and Confused” and “School of Rock.” He is a genuinely fun guy – too Texas to be "Hollywood." It was nice to be able to thank him for bringing attention to Austin and Texas as viable locations for movie making. You can't talk about filmmaking in Austin or Texas without bringing up Linklater. (See: Texas films at SXSW).

Marcia Ball and I at the MEOW Women in Music luncheon. (Photo by Dallas singer Sonya Jevette)

Blues great Marcia Ball ranks high on my list of performers that I admire. She didn’t perform for SXSW, but I was able to visit with the 5-time Grammy nominee (the latest for her album Roadside Attractions) at a SXSW-inspired luncheon for women in music. The event, hosted by Carla de Santis Black of M.E.O.W (Musicians for Equal Opportunity for Women) with assistance from Nancy Conklin of Women in Music Professional Society, included a phenomenal array of empowered women who were performers, music label reps, publicists and  key movers and shakers in the music world. … all in one room to do one thing, support each other. A beautiful thing. It was inspiring, and you could feel a push to the moment women in music are feeling right now. At the end of the event, a performer from Boston took the mic to share this was her favorite part of SXSW so far. Others echoed the sentiments.

A moment with Rachael Ray as her husband's band The Cringe sets up on stage to the right of us. (Photo by Jolene Ellis)

On the last evening of SXSW, I finally made it to Rachael Ray’s private three-night bash on Austin’s east side (she also hosted a musical showcase for the public during the day Saturday). I arrived in time to see her husband take the stage with his band, The Cringe. It’s nice to have a supportive wife, no? Ray has become a regular SXSW party host, and she was A-OK. Thanks Rae-Ray! But after about an hour, I have to admit I started to feel a bit of withdrawal. I had a hankering for more of the Texas vibe. I found it.

I think music is like the blood in our veins …  the air in our lungs. I imagine we’d wither and die without musical expression. So, THANK YOU Texas, because an event like SXSW makes me realize how incredibly blessed we are with the creative community that has been fostered within the Lone Star borders. The state is brimming with talent, and its up to all of us to support our local performers. We have a good thing going, let's help keep it thriving.

Final Days of SXSW Film: Movies and Music

Written by | Published March 21, 2012

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.

From SXSW to Your Local Theater, Part 2: Bernie

Written by | Published March 19, 2012

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.

SXSW 2012: Now Just a Memory

Written by | Published March 19, 2012

(Win a CD: See below)

Like a whirlwind weekend with a beloved old friend, there are mixed feelings as we say goodbye to South by Southwest 2012. It all comes to a stop when our film- and music-fed souls – so full of tremendous energy and excitement (and next-to-no sleep) – simply can’t take in any more.

Makeshift venues and lounges that seemingly popped up over night come down just as quickly. Those remaining visitors – looking a little worse for the wear – take in their last hoorah of Austin hospitality along South Congress for one of the breakfast hotspots or coffee bars amid a few straggling Sunday morning, non-SXSW performances and tented vendor booths.

Left are fresh memories of film premiers with celebrity-laden, red-carpet hoopla; innovative minds and ideas shared by the interactive community; and the crazy late nights of band after band after band.

Pair that with official party after party, often bringing in big-name  celebs who want a piece of the action, too, by hosting their own festivities and musical showcases.

Gone are the fashion statements that offered a magniified reflection of the diversity in the SXSW schedule. You can spot, for example, the documentary or anime film devotees against the gadget gurus and entrepreneurs. Or fans of rock, metal and every other subgenre of music, Quite frankly, you could also distinguish the Austinite from the visitor.

At the end of the day, though, when SXSW crowds have all gone home, Austin retains its quintessential dose of diverse personalities, tourists, the movie scene and celebrities … and, of course, live music.

Each year, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau releases a CD that captures the essence of the Capital City musice scene. We’d like to give a copy to one of our readers.

WIN A CD

Tell us the name of your favorite Texas-based band or performer – feel free to share a link to their website if you like –for a chance to win this year’s “Austin Music Volume 11” CD. It’s packed with 13 selected tracks, including 2010-2011’s Band of the Year, Quiet Company, Nakia, Carrie Rodriguez, Speak, Lex Land and more.

 

Note: Please note that, thanks to spammers, all blog comments are moderated, so you won't see your response immediately. Have no fear. We will moderate all comments before choosing a winner on Friday. Thank you!

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.

Today's theme: Change

Written by | Published March 15, 2012

In line the other day to see Hunky Dory, the coming-of-age film starring Minnie Driver entered in the “Narrative Spotlight” category at the SXSW Film Festival, I got to chatting with one of my fellow queue-standers about our experiences as passholders. She told me that had purchased a pass for the past few years and had some tips. The satellite spaces, she said—this year at the new Alamo Slaughter location and the Alamo Village—seem especially designed for passholders, and she said that once the music contingent starts, the movie crowds thin out a bit. But sometimes things don’t go as planned.

“A few nights ago, I was in the pass line at the Alamo South,” she told me, “and it was looking pretty good. I was pretty sure I’d get in.” She paused for effect as another passholder leaned over to hear the story. “And then, a busload of badges pulled up. Dang it! It was all over. So I came up here and got into the documentary about Deepak Chopra. Which was excellent.”

Such is the nature of readjusting plans during South by Southwest, and maybe life itself, a theme echoed by the film See Girl Run, a movie that delved into the rich dramatic potential of exploring what could have happened if we had made different choices in our lives. What if we had chosen a different path? In one scene, the father of the protagonist, a young woman on the verge of abandoning her marriage to reunite with a lost love from high school, compares maintaining a relationship to a high-tech missile. Unlike old missiles, he explained, which can’t be adjusted once they are launched, newer missiles can readjust course in mid-flight to stay with the target. I liked that analogy, as life has the tendency to throw curveballs just when things seem steady. And even something as simple as a conversation has its inherent readjustments and allowances for give-and-take. In a Q&A after the movie, the director noted that if you go into a conversation knowing exactly what you’re going to say, then you’re not really listening and thus, not really having a conversation.

Many of the films I’ve seen so far, really, seem to have secondary themes of change and adjustment, acceptance of change, and the perils and rewards of growth and decay. The documentary Welcome to the Machine, for example, examines how technology has change the world we live in, and poses the (unanswered) question: Is humanity better or worse thanks to technology?  And is there any real way to return to the way things were, now that the Genie is out of the bottle?

Last night’s documentary, America’s Parking Lot, follows two avid Dallas Cowboys tailgaters as their 35-year tradition at the old Texas Stadium comes to and end. We see the stadium’s implosion and the two fans attempting to piece together a new tradition at Jerry Jones’ new 1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Yes, it’s funny–one protagonist names his daughter Meredith Landry and unabashedly admits he thinks about the Cowboys more than his wife. And yes, it’s a rather scathing study of how pro football has evolved into a rich man’s game. But Cowboys fandom and economic politics aside, it’s a story of change and tradition, and what those two intangible concepts mean.  Life seen through the lens of football? Now that’s a Texas tradition. Seek this one out, even if you can’t see it during SXSW.

Seen (and Heard) at SXSW Film

Written by | Published March 13, 2012

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.

Five films in three days

Written by | Published March 12, 2012

It’s day four of the South By Southwest Film festival, and I’m reflecting on the busy weekend. So far, my experiences as a passholder have been positive—I’ll admit I was worried about standing in line only to get bumped by badgeholders, but so far this hasn’t happened. Friday night, the opening night of the festival, I attended a packed showing of one of last year’s festival favorites, the Australian horror movie The Loved Ones. I knew it would be dark (reviewers billed it as Sixteen Candles meets Carrie), but I was unprepared for the level of gore, and it was only when I began to focus on the makeup skills required for such effects that I could open my eyes fully during certain scenes.

Day two began with dark skies and nearly continuous downpours. My first plan, a midday screening of the documentary about musician Charles Bradley, a James Brown doppelganger whom I had seen perform at this year’s Austin City Limits festival, didn’t pan out. Screening at one of the 40-person theaters at downtown’s new Violet Crown venue, the film filled up before I got in the queue, so instead I headed to the Paramount, where a long line of people snaked around the building, huddling beneath umbrellas and hoping to gain admission to the World Premiere of the film Trash Dance, a documentary about choreographer Allison Orr’s spellbinding dance project with the City of Austin’s Solid Waste Services.

Orr, whose Forklift Danceworks (www.forkliftdanceworks.org) has created ballets with firefighters, service dogs, and Italian gondolas, orchestrated a dance with garbage trucks, cranes, and other sanitation equipment on the abandoned tarmac of Austin’s old Mueller airport, an event I witnessed live this past summer.  This, the documentary about the project, illustrated how Orr won the trust of the 24 Solid Waste Services employees who starred in the production, most of whom entered the project with healthy skepticism. With a score by Austin composer Graham Reynolds, the film made me (and many other audience members) laugh and yes, cry. After the show the cast and crew took the stage amid stand-up applause and cheers, I realized that this moment—the marriage of audience and cast— is what makes seeing a film in a festival setting unique and worthwhile. It was a theme I’d witness multiple times over the weekend–the sense that somehow we’re all participating in this creative endeavor together.

Later on Saturday, I stood in line with other passholders at the Alamo Village, chatting with strangers and hoping to gain access to the film The Babymakers, a comedy about a young couple trying to start a family. After failing to conceive, the male protagonist stages a heist of the sperm bank to which he had donated years ago–and hilarity ensues. A Q&A after the film with director Jay Chandrasekhar and fellow star Kevin Heffernan made the experience doubly worthwhile.

The third film I screened on Saturday, the Seattle-made Fat Kid Rules the World, blew me away. It tells the story of an overweight teenager who finds salvation of sorts in the discovery of punk rock, and the characters were so fully drawn that I felt as if I knew them by film’s end. The cinema was full of cast and crew, so energy was high, and a pre-movie chat with my neighbor, who worked with lighting design, gave me an appreciation for an aspect of filmmaking I hadn’t considered. When the director, Matthew Lillard, told us that he had been an overweight teen himself, I realized why certain scenes seemed so authentic. As with the screening of Trash Dance, the appearance of cast and crew reinforced the sense of a supportive and involved movie community.

The sun emerged on Sunday, and with the sun came the crowds. Plans to see the documentary The Source, about a group of LA followers of controversial restaurateur-turned-spiritual-leader “Father Yod” in the 1970s, were thwarted by parking problems. But later in the day, I once again headed north to the Alamo Village to see the Texas-made movie Kid+Thing, a moody drama about a young girl in East Texas who discovers—yet chooses not to rescue—a woman who had fallen down a well. While the scenery was evocative and the young star—12-year-old Sydney Aguirre—excellent, the movie didn’t speak to me personally. But others in the audience disagreed, and that inconsistence reminds me of the subjective nature of moviegoing, and what a wonderful thing it is that we all have different tastes!

Five down, more to come. Stay tuned!

Pass to Inspiration

Written by | Published March 7, 2012

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What’s the old saying about March roaring in like a lion? In Austin this year, it seems especially appropriate: Blooming mountain laurels perfume the air with their sweet-tart aroma, bluebonnets have started to appear on the roadsides, and if you explore downtown, you’ll sense the electric buzz forming as shopkeepers, bartenders, restaurants, theaters, and hotels prepare for the wildly popular event known as the South by Southwest Music, Film, and Interactive Festival, which runs March 9-18 this year.

Last year, the event’s 25th anniversary, the festival’s official registration surged 40 percent over 2010 numbers (with a total fest attendance of 286,000 people!). Here are more impressive numbers: More than 2,000 musical acts performed on 92 stages across the city; the interactive contingent drew almost 20,000 registered attendees (from 53 foreign countries!); and the film contingent attracted more than 66,000 film fans who flocked to see 140 features and 153 shorts. According to organizers, SXSW was directly and indirectly responsible for injecting some $168 million into the Austin economy. (And these figures don’t even begin to consider the impact of the hundreds of unofficial events, concerts, parties, and attractions offered during the festival.)

For the past decade, I’ve experienced SXSW on the fringes, ducking into free day parties and big concerts at Auditorium Shores, standing in line for movie tickets, and enjoying the crush of visitors from around the world who descend upon Austin each year. But this year, I have a film pass (available in limited numbers for $70 in-store at Waterloo Records), and I plan to see as many films as my schedule allows. With 132 feature films and countless shorts and other events to choose from, these next weeks should be action-packed. (See my colleague Jane Wu’s blog for details on some of the festival’s films with Lone Star ties.)

I visited recently with SXSW Film Conference and Festival Director Janet Pierson about the event’s growth, maturation, and significance, and why choosing a film you’ve never heard of may be the most direct route to inspiration.

“Since the Film and Interactive Festival started in 1994, the independent film world has changed profoundly,” Pierson says. “The digital revolution has made a huge difference. In the mid-1990s, there were hundreds of films made every year; now there are thousands. When people made films in 35 millimeter, making a movie cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and took a long time. But thanks to digital advances, cameras became less expensive, and filmmakers could edit well on their laptops. This year, we moved the deadline for submissions up to mid-November, because the number has been steadily increasing year-to-year. This year, we received more than 5,000 submissions, a 7% increase from last year.

“As film festivals go, and I’m including fests such as Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance, we skew toward American-made films. We’re neither a regional film festival nor an international film festival. We look for balance, so our films range from comedies to documentaries, dark dramas, and may feature themes as ‘small’ as two people walking down the road.”

While Pierson acknowledges that the Film Festival is primarily a “badge event” designed for film industry folks (film badges cost $595), she says it’s still possible to see some of the movies with a pass or by purchasing individual tickets ($10)—as long as seats are still available. “We want full theaters, and the venues vary tremendously,” she says. “I mean, if you don’t have a badge, you’re not going to get into the world premiere of The Cabin in the Woods (the directorial debut of Drew Goddard, the writer behind the hit TV show Lost), but you can easily see certain films at the Vimeo or Canon. Or try the Alamo South Lamar—sometimes it’s crowded and sometimes it’s not.

“We’ve vetted everything,” she told me, “and we think it’s all great. Take a chance on something you’ve never heard of. Success for us is when we’ve inspired people.”

I’m ready!

 

 

 

SXSW Film: A Texas Preview

Written by | Published March 7, 2012

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!"

(CMigrator copy 3)

Written by | Published February 6, 2012
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Pig Predicts an Early Spring!

Written by | Published February 2, 2012

It’s the dead of winter, supposedly—February 2—and a quick survey of mid-afternoon temperatures across Texas (70 degrees in Austin, 72 in Houston, 73 in Dallas, a frigid 50 in Amarillo, a balmy 77 in Brownsville) makes me think we’re in for an early spring.

But don’t take my word for it. Instead, listen to Remley the Babirusa at the Houston Zoo, who agreed to stand in for the traditional groundhog this morning—and predicted an early spring. (Groundhogs don’t like the hot and humid weather typically found in Houston, but Babirusas- small hairless pigs native to Indonesia—find it quite agreeable.)

This morning’s ultra-scientific weather-prognosticating ceremony offered Remley two choices: a two-foot paper “snowman” filled with watermelon slices and other tasty Babirusa treats, and a pink-and-white picnic scene featuring the same edible enticements. The rest of the ceremony followed tradition: If Remley chose the snowman, we’d have six more weeks of winter; if he chose the picnic scene, spring is on its way. My sources tell me that while Remley flirted with the winter scene, he ultimately dove into the picnic setting and decreed an early spring. So it's official.

I’m consistently impressed with the creativity and imagination of the folks at the Houston Zoo, an AZA-accredited zoo that dates to 1922.  I believe that if Remley could talk, he’d say, “Now that the weather is warm, come visit me. I am a master of camouflage and move like a deer. And obviously I have great taste and a sense of humor.”

 

 

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