By Don Simpson | November 17, 2009
The 16th annual Austin Film Festival opened with a true screenwriting gem, Serious Moonlight. Penned by the late Adrienne Shelley around the same time she created Waitress – Shelley was murdered shortly after wrapping Waitress, before she had the opportunity to direct Serious Moonlight. I loved Waitress, and have been a fan of Adrienne Shelley since seeing her act in Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth and Trust.
“…the script is chock-full of clever Hitchcockian twists along with a impeccably strong (and mysterious) conclusion. Serious Moonlight is very conservatively directed by first-timer Cheryl Hines (who acted in Waitress with Shelley).”
I have long been curious about C.D. Payne’s 1993 epistolary novel Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp, and unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to read it prior to the AFF screening of Miguel Arteta’s film. Nonetheless, into the Paramount I went…
“Youth in Revolt – no matter how exaggerated and fictionalized – essentially tells nice pubescent boys that it is ok to be bad (rebellious, violent and destructive) in order to attract girls.”
I must echo Anthony Lane’s comment (in the November 3, 2009 issue of the New Yorker) regarding the ridiculousness of this film’s title. Was Miguel Arteta’s 2009 film Youth in Revolt titled Youth in Revolt: Based on the epistolary novel Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp by C.D. Payne? Nope. Should it have been? Nope.
I typically run far away from the Oprah bandwagon…of which Precious is poised front and center. Nonetheless, I ventured inside the Paramount to see if Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (Ugh! That drives me nuts!) deserves all of its hype…
Caution: Director Lee Daniels (producer of Monster’s Ball, The Woodsman and Shadowboxer) should not be confused with Austin’s cinematographer extraordinaire Lee Daniel [note: no “s”] (Slacker, Dazed and Confused).
“Precious is essentially a hyper-real fantasy (albeit of hell), in which everything from the characters to the plot to the visuals are exaggerated to the point that all of this could only exist in the world of Hollywood.”
For posterity’s sake, I’ll start with a comment regarding the Q&A of this next screening as a means to introduce the review… During the screening of Harmony and Me there were a couple very minor technical glitches (something one comes to expect at film festivals, nothing as dreadful as the out-of-sync Passenger Side screening to be discussed later), but according to Harmony and Me’s director Bob Byington the projection was too pixilated and therefore he was apparently in a state of shock following the screening.
There was a Q&A session with Byington, and actors Kristen Tucker and Alex Karpovsky. Byington (visibly angry) rather than refusing to do the Q&A altogether, opted to sulk and whine in front of the audience for a painful amount of time. On the few occasions that he didn’t blatantly ignore a question from the audience, he snapped at the questioner and fell into a tirade about how pixilated the projection was. The audience, in reaction to Byington’s frustration, piped up a few times to praise him for his film but this just seemed to perturb him even more prompting him to essentially disown the film (or at least this screening of the film). Tucker and Karpovsky did what they could to salvage the Q&A, but to no avail. While I understand Byington’s opinion that the film should have been projected by a higher quality projector, it was not the audience’s fault so do not take it out on them. In fact, a majority of the audience didn’t even notice the pixels and they appeared totally perplexed by Byington’s anger. If Byington was so frustrated, he should have talked with the theater manager or called the festival programmer or festival director; and he should have refrained from doing the Q&A.
(Though the Q&A severely tainted my opinion of Byington as a person, my rating was determined prior to the Q&A during the closing credits of the screening.)
“Harmony and Me features occasional glimpses of brilliant dialogue, but the film constantly finds itself being dragged back into Harmony’s place of employment – and that entire subplot just does not seem to work…”
Well, now it’s about time to interject my one complaint about the otherwise wonderful 2009 Austin Film Festival (it was also my main complaint in 2008 as well): the theater locations and sizes. First of all, I opted to rely solely on Capital Metro buses and the soles of my own two feet to get me from theater to theater. This festival-going philosophy ruled out a few theaters – primarily Arbor and the Alamo Lake Creek. Secondly, AFF only uses theater 2 at the Alamo Ritz (the small one). Screening after screening, festival goers were refused entrance to the quickly sold out screenings with only the most desperately dedicated badge-holders (after queuing in line for an hour plus) were granted admittance. Why a major theatrical release such as An Education would have its one and only screening at the Alamo Ritz is still a mystery to me. I tried to get in, but I failed miserably – so I scurried across to the east side of I-35 to the Independent at 501 Studios to watch Love and Tambourines.
“Love & Tambourines is unbelievably cute, irresistibly silly and irreverently nonsensical – the portion of the film about tangerines and tambourines reveals these traits at their utmost abundance.”
The next screening (Passenger Side) was rife with technical glitches – especially a syncing problem between the video and audio. An Austin Film Festival representative warned the audience that “the film would fall out-of-sync for a few minutes” – but it turns out that he meant that the film would fall drastically out-of-sync (by more than 5 seconds) for a few minutes, and it would be less out-of-sync (anywhere between 1 and 4 seconds) for the majority of the film. I can usually go with the flow of technical glitches, but this screening was absolutely ridiculous! It is incredibly distracting (to me, at least) to watch a character’s lips move or to see a car door slam, then hear the sound seconds later. At times, it felt like I was a young kid trying to determine how far away a lightning storm was – there’s the light (in this case, video)…one, one thousand…two, one thousand…three, one thousand…there’s the bang (in this case, audio)…
“90% of the film takes place within the restricted confines of Michael’s car, with only the scenery around the car changing. In other words, this is an acting and dialogue-driven movie.”
It was somewhat disorienting to see Adam Scott in two polar opposite lead performances (and both as older brothers) within a couple hours of each other – from his relative calm and nonchalant persona in Passenger Side to the jaded and enraged Caleb in The Vicious Kind. And after that horrible presentation of Passenger Side, I kept thinking: No wonder Adam Scott is so angry in The Vicious Kind, I would be pissed off at the world too!
“The level of the tension throughout The Vicious Kind is so high at times, that it is not hard to suspect that the film is going to erupt into a violent bloodbath. Though the tone was unsettling to say the least, it was extremely effective…”
Next on my agenda was Tenure, written and directed by first-timer Mike Million and starring Luke Wilson. On paper Tenure may read like a mature version of
Rushmore – in this case mature might mean older, but it does not mean more refined. Writer-director Million was in attendance and did a Q&A afterwards.
“Sort of a Rushmore for adults except that Tenure relies predominantly on absurdity and silliness (thanks primarily to Jay) to get by.”
One of my fondest memories of the 1998 South by Southwest Film Festival was stumbling upon screenwriter Tim McCanlies’ directorial debut Dancer, Texas Pop. 81. Unfortunately, McCanlies next directorial effort (Secondhand Lions) wound up also being his sophomore slump. So I entered the Paramount admittedly with some trepidation, unsure of what to expect from McCanlies: greatness or failure. What was in store for me on the magnificent silver screen of the Paramount was one of the most pleasant surprises at AFF this year.
“Director Tim McCanlies turns what could have been a hokey children’s movie into a rich and emotionally deep (read: total tearjerker) philosophical essay on human existence…”
I would never pass up an opportunity to see any film with three of my favorite actors sharing the same screen: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster and Samantha Morton. Oren Moverman co-wrote two of my favorite films of the last 10 years: Jesus’ Son and I’m Not There – The Messenger (which Moverman also co-wrote) is his directorial debut. Moverman and Harrelson introduced the film (after showing up 20 minutes late) and stuck around for a Q&A afterwards. They talked a lot about how The Messenger is an actors’ film – which was exactly what I was thinking…
“The superbly acted The Messenger is apolitical in that it opts to focus solely on the affects that war has on the families left behind by killed soldiers and the Army officers who are the first to notify the next of kin. Foster and Harrelson are two of my favorite actors working today, and The Messenger exemplifies why.”
Sometimes at film festivals, you need to make sacrifices in order to guarantee that you will see a particular film later in the day. My biggest sacrifice during AFF was to essentially “camp out” at the Paramount’s screening of The Young Victoria, in order to set myself up for prime line placement for the next screening – The Road. Little did I know just how colossal of a sacrifice The Young Victoria would be…
“Queen Victoria became Queen of England at age 18 and reigned for over 63 years; she was an intelligent and strong woman (for whom the Victorian era was named – a period of great industrial, political, scientific and military progress in Great Britain), but we would never know that from The Young Victoria.”
Admittedly, I was one of the few that did not love No Country for Old Men. In my opinion it was too quirky and absurd, essentially the tone was not dark enough. My dissatisfaction with the Coen Brothers’ film did not however quell my excitement for another adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel – The Road. I was so anxious to see The Road that I sat through the mind-numbing entirety of The Young Victoria in order to remain close to the Paramount Theater.
“The Road does not waiver from its grim tone or damning intentions. This is no Hollywood blockbuster – the pitch-perfect pacing is not for everyone, as the film truly meanders down a road less traveled.”
Jason Reitman (winner of the 2007 AFF Audience Award for Juno) closed the 2009 Austin Film Festival with Up in the Air. It seemed fitting that I too head up in the air to the balcony of the Paramount Theater with Guinness in hand (the only way to fly, in my opinion). Reitman introduced the film and returned onstage for a Q&A afterwards. Up in the Air won the 2009 Audience Award.
“Up in the Air effortlessly juggles critiques of: corporate downsizing, modern humans becoming antisocial beings (thanks to technological innovations – from the telephone to the internet), and the absurdity of frequent customer (such as frequent flyer) rewards. Basically, Up in the Air is a rom-com with a clever social and political commentary built-in…”