On Location 2011
austin film festival

Quick hits: The good, the bad and the behind-the-scenes at Austin Film Festival — Saturday, October 22

Quick hits: The good, the bad and the behind-the-scenes at Austin Film Festival — Saturday, October 22

As the 18th annual Austin Film Festival takes over our town, bringing hundreds of screenings (and more than a few late night parties) through October 27th, CultureMap contributors are busy trying to catch as many features, documentaries, shorts and panels as possible while also keeping up with festival news to help you navigate the lines (and, of course, plenty of celebrity gossip). Every day, we’ll be recapping our AFF highlights: films we’re begging you no to miss, tips for planning your week and the you-had-to-be-there moments you may have missed. 

Day Three: Saturday, October 22nd

The good:

Beneath the Darkness opens strong with Dennis Quaid as an unabashed psychopath, Ely, who kidnaps his neighbor off a dark, lonely road to enact an elaborate revenge for an unnamed crime. Much like how Drive pulled a bait-and-switch on viewers by substituting meditative shots of Ryan Gosling knifing people for car chases, Beneath the Darkness offers us a tantalizing glimpse of a movie filled with a crazy-ass Dennis Quaid and then gives us teenage romance. As far as teenage romances go, it ain't bad. Abby (Amy Teegarden of Friday Night Lights fame) makes doe eyes while saying insightful things to her maybe-boyfriend Travis (Tony Oller) while they try to convince the small town of Smithville, Texas, that the former football star and current town mortician Ely is actually responsible for their friend's death. The movie was shot in and around Austin, and it shows how small town camaraderie can make people ignore what's right in front of them. All of the teens in the film agree that Eli is “creepy,” but the adults can't even be bothered to look under a very suspicious tarp because they're so committed to their narrative of Ely as a nice guy. There are some slow moments and a confusing subplot involving Travis' dead sister (she died because of ghosts?) but it's all worth it to see Dennis Quaid steal every scene with his predatory grin and barely contained rage. When he catches the teens breaking into his house, he points his gun at Travis and says, “We're in Texas. We can shoot burglars in Texas.” The audience loved it, as well as the almost visceral satisfaction of the final shots of Ely twitching and frothing in his mania. If there's a sequel, we highly recommend 100% more Ely. [K.C.]

AFF was lucky to have not one but two films from founding members of the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade in competition this year: Matt Besser's mind-blowingly hilarious Freak Dance, which premiered on Friday, and Matt Walsh's stoner comedy High Road, a short but sweet feature about a bumbling weed dealer and his "get your shit together, dude" moment. Starring James Pumphrey and SNL's Abby Elliott, the film features Lizzy Caplan and Zach Woods in strong supporting roles, plus cameos from comics including Kyle Gass and Andy Daly. We meet couple Fitz (Pumphrey) and Monica (Elliott) as the musician-slash-dealer's bands is breaking up, sending him into a months-long spiral of weed-fueled mania. After mistakenly suspecting that a pair of undercover cops are out to bust him, Fitz flees LA with a moody sidekick, a class-ditching teen on the run from his overbearing father (Rob Riggle) and his overenthusiastic cop-wannabe uncle (Joe lo Truglio). As the pair attempt to deal with their own issues—and learn a little about each other in the process—they're pursued by a growing group of friends and family whose hijinks strike a lighthearted balance to the film's larger themes of fatherhood and responsibility. [S.P.]

There's a layer of superficial sweetness over Jeff, Who Lives At Home, that the Duplass brothers do their best to undercut. A day of misadventure in the lives of two brothers (Jason Segel and Ed Helms) and their mother (Susan Sarandon), the strong performances and naturalistic style garner enough perfection for the characters that the film nearly earns a ridiculous ending setpiece that's right out of the movie Crash. Segel in particular shines as the titular Jeff, a moon-eyed believer in coincidences and destiny that maintains a dreamy optimism no matter what life throws at him- between him and Paul Rudd's recent Our Idiot Brother, we're witnessing the birth of the Slacker Pixie Dream Guy. [D.C.]

The Duplass brothers have a winner. Jeff, Who Lives at Home delivers their signature comedy-drama with a stellar cast delivering outstanding performances. Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, Ed Helms and Jason Segel manage to take the farcical and make it not just believable but poignant. The directors sat just in front of me at the Paramount and watching them react to the audience response was fun. And the audience did respond with laughter and perhaps some tears. They clearly have high hopes for this film. [K.B.]

There's a whole genre of left-leaning, "look at how terrible the world is" documentaries, covering topics from our food supply to campaign finance to our education system. Vanessa Roth's American Teacher fits comfortably in the latter category among films like Waiting For Superman and The Lottery, exploring the immense challenges of our public education system from the viewpoint of those who power that machine's engine, the teachers. And while the movie is definitely a bummer – the reality of low pay/long hours gets hammered home pretty hard by following a teacher who supplements his income by loading trucks at a tile superstore – it's also a celebration of the immense amount of hard work and dedication that those who endure those things in order to pursue the profession possess. And that's important, even if a single documentary film is unlikely to affect the sort of sweeping policy change that the movie makes clear is necessary: One of the biggest challenges that the teachers who are featured in the film discuss is the lack of regard they receive as professionals ("those who can do, those who can't teach" is derided by the frustrated educators early on). Even if American Teacher only succeeds in preaching to the converted, celebrating the work of teachers as something that would make people with less fortitude and determination bawl their eyes out every night from sheer overwork has value of its own. [D.S.]

On its surface, Albert Nobbs, starring Glen Close, is about a woman pretending to be a man in late 19th century Ireland but it goes deeper, playing with gender roles and sexuality in surprising ways. Albert began posing as a boy at age 14 to get work and is now trapped in the role as a butler at a fancy hotel. At first glance, Albert appears blank but a deeper inspection shows that Close looks almost calcified in this role – like an asexual wind-up doll whose joints badly need oiling. Albert presents a facsimile of humanity, having shunned human connection out of fear for so long that now he's even forgotten how to have a simple conversation. His strained attempts at friendship and courtship are both hilarious and heart wrenching and when he sets out to find a wife, we fear the worst. He's not the only character hiding something, however, and the film makes a point to strip away our assumptions about Victorian society. Like many period films, lords and ladies strut across the screen while their servants chatter away in the kitchen but in this version, the lords roll other young men out of their beds in the morning while the servants joke about being left “high but not dry” by the young men they fancy. In the midst of all this very human interaction, Albert saves his pence under a floorboard and dreams of owning a tobacco shop with rooms above. Albert Nobbs winds its way through the story, throwing out a few false leads but ultimately arriving at a touching and satisfying conclusion. All of the cast give strong performances, and we're ultimately left with a haunting portrait of a person in hiding and the society that trapped him there. [K.C.]

The bad:

The Small and Creepy Films selection of shorts was a decidedly mixed bag. The hands down winner (based on audience applause at least) was "Sebastian's Voodoo," a wordless CGI number about the heroic sacrifice of an animate voodoo doll. Caroline Thompson, who curated the list, also co-created "Troubled Tommy," a depressingly juvenile animated story of a boy plotting his baby brother's demise. Claymation remained a go-to for creepiness, as ever: the final short "The Toll Collector" went nowhere, but "Sproessling" has the most memorable atmosphere of dread, and "The Cat With Hands" used a claymation interlude to achieve the dysmorphic horror of the most anicent fairytales.  But for every winning effort, there was something like "Bloody Mary," an animated one-and-done gag worthy of the internet's idle time, but not a festival screen. [D.C.]

It wouldn't be fair to call Shame a bad movie, and it certainly inspired a lot of conversation among people leaving the theater at the Arbor after its screening. But it's not as great as its cast, which is headed up by James Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, and its pedigree – director Steve McQueen's previous film, Hunger, won a number of major awards – would suggest. The movie is intense and moody, full of lingering camera shots and guided by a severely understated script, but it also opts for some bizarrely heavy-handed moralizing at the climax of the film. Shame tells the story of a sex addict (Fassbender) and his visiting sister (Mulligan) and follows them around as they lead their messy, bleak lives, driven by compulsions the film is uninterested in helping us understand. The script eschews developing its characters in favor of ratcheting up their interpersonal tension, which comes off like a very deliberate choice, but at some point, when you treat your characters as stand-ins for an emotion (the titular shame), rather than as people, you're going to lose some of your audience. Maybe its appropriate for a movie about a guy addicted to one night stands that while Shame is a captivating film, it's also one that you can walk away from feeling unfulfilled and empty. [D.S.]

Austin High screened at the Rollins Theater before a very friendly crowd of friends and production crew—unfortunately, the film did not rise to the title's expectations. While the story is decent, as stoner films go, the filmmakers were clearly in over their heads. These films only work under the guidance of experts, this film appeared too much like a poor student production with bad editing and shot selection and amateur acting. Hopefully, the film will inspire a remake worthy of the script. One positive: it's always fun to see Austin on the big screen. [K.B.]

The behind-the-scenes:

The Q&A session following American Teacher saw eight of the nine question-askers identify themselves as teachers or former teachers – including one whose children were once students of Erik Benner, a Texas history teacher and football coach who’s featured in the film. After what was clearly an emotional viewing experience for most of them, the Q&A focused mostly on sharing personal stories, a useful reminder for the non-teachers in the audience of just how universal the experiences reflected in the film are. [D.S.]

A somewhat long delay plagued people waiting to see High Road, as staffers were having trouble with the preceding short, "Ronnie's Donuts." After some minutes, chagrined director Nathan Efstation admitted to very patients festival-goers that there was some technical difficulty with the short, in that "they lost it." A digital copy was produced, and after some increasingly hilarious attempts to hit play while operating the mouse on the reverse projection screen, "Ronnie's Donuts" started and AFF was back on schedule. [D.C.]

My night was made meeting Lisa Loeb as I walked on Congress after the Duplass brothers film. Lisa is the real thing: Kind, generous with her time and open to a conversation about her work. Plus, her Mom was with her—clearly she's authentic. [K.B.]

The normally sleepy Arbor screening room woke up on Saturday night, as the site of the only screening of Steve McQueen’s highly-anticipated Shame. Unfortunately, way more attendees were admitted into the theater than could be seated. As the cry of “no saving seats” rang through the auditorium, there were a few heated exchanges between people sitting next to a seat that had been temporarily vacated by someone who’d gone to the bathroom, and frustrated badgeholders who didn’t relish the idea of standing along the side of the theater for 99 minutes of sexually-dysfunctional psychodrama. In the end, they didn’t have to – a red-faced AFF staffer informed the standing-room-only crowd that they hadn’t been counting how many people they’d let in, and anyone without a seat would have to leave the theater. Oops. [D.S.]

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