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After a week of screenings, panels and parties, this year’s Austin Film Festival has wrapped up, leaving us reflecting on our favorite films and fondly remembering our favorite moments (like a chance David Boreanaz encounter on 6th Street, and of course, making new friends in the lines winding around packed theaters). Here’s a recap of our AFF coverage, with some of the reviews, interviews and quick hits that highlight the best of the fest.

Reviews

Adversity and laughter in South African documentaries Manenberg and Township to the Stage

While AFF features plenty of premieres from US filmmakers, they also boast a roster of international films that, this year, featured two incredible South African documentaries. Manenberg follows a group of children to explore the long-term effects of political unrest, while Township to the Stage (a recent jury prize winner at the Friar’s Club Comedy Film Festival) explores the burgeoning stand up scene in South Africa.

Pariah transcends genre to explore the complexity of sexuality, race and adolescence

One of our favorite films of the festival, Pariah is writer/director Dee Rees’ debut feature-length film, perfectly cast with star Adepero Oduye. Following a Brooklyn teenager’s coming-of-age in an environment that doesn’t exactly embrace her sexual and social choices, the film is deeply moving and beautifully shot.

Local filmmakers dress Austin up as LA in A Swingin’ Trio

Set in LA but shot and produced in Austin, A Swingin’ Trio follows couples struggling to balance success and love. The production is a local effort with big reach, and we anticipate to hear lots of buzz about this film in the future.

Four under-the-radar AFF films

AFF is known for highlighting otherwise unknown offerings, and this year was no different, boasting a strong roster of both highly-anticipated premieres and lesser-known entries. Four we loved? One Night Stand, Some Guy Who Kills People, The Stand Up and Okay, Enough Goodbye.

Interviews

Whit Stillman on the romanticism of first-time filmmaking

While he didn’t have a new film in the fest this year (we wish!), Whit Stillman was in town for a special screening of his social satire, Metropolitan. We talked to Whit about the personal nature of his work and the threads that tie his films together.

Rob Thomas on "shotgun friendships," the Party Downmovie rumors and his new (Texas-based!) show, Little in Common

Ex-Party Down and Veronica Mars showrunner Rob Thomas is a proud Austinite, and also working on a new show (starring Rob Corddry and Heather Graham) about a California couple recently relocated to Texas.

Writer Kyle Killen talks Texas, The Beaver and his latest TV drama, Awake

Last year’s highly-acclaimed but short-lived show, Lone Star, introduced us to Kyle Killen, whose forthcoming series follows “a police detective (Jason Isaacs) who wakes up after a car accident to find himself apparently living in two parallel realities: one with his now-deceased wife and the other with their dead son.”

Jim Dauterive gives a sneak peek of the Bob’s Burgers season two premiere

A veteran writer and producer who penned some of the most classic King of the Hill episodes, Jim Dauterive’s latest animated series, Bob’s Burgers, is already amassing a cult audience after just one season. We talk to him about writing for TV and his Texan inspirations.

Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg on not having a backup plan

Responsible for wildly popular (and wildly different) films like Con Air and High Fidelity, Scott Rosenberg was in town to offer experiential advice to aspiring writers; he shared a few top tips with us.

Will Elliott and Kirk Johnson discuss stoner comedy, making movies and their feature-length love letter to our city, Austin High

Written, cast, shot and edited in Austin, and featuring plenty of shout-outs to some of our favorite places (Jo’s! Hippie Hollow! Waterloo Park!), Austin High is a hilarious ode to some of the things that define our city—like weed, existential angst and pedicab rivalries.

Behind the Scenes

Johnny Depp jumps onstage with Billy Gibbons and Bill Carter at The Continental Club

With Depp in town to promote The Rum Diary’s AFF screening, every Austinite had their fingers crossed for a chance encounter. Luck came to late night partiers at The Continental Club on Saturday (technically, early Sunday), when Depp got onstage for a short—and very sweet—set. Check out the video below (and follow the YouTube links for more fan-captured clips from Depp’s set).

Quick Hits

Selections from our daily coverage of screenings, panels and events

Thursday, October 20th

Elizabeth Olsen dominates every frame of Martha Marcy May Marlene, in a role that vacillates from the soft, demure naivete of the uninitiated to the impulsively vindictive, and also demands deft emotional nuance and raw physicality. As showstoppers go, it's a sure to earn her an Oscar nomination in February. John Hawkes is the other clear standout performer, ratcheting up his dispassionately brutal persona from Winter's Bone into a frighteningly calm and domineering cult leader. Director Sean Durkin, with only two short films to his prior credit, makes a stunningly assured feature debut—the just-after-sunset gloom of the cinematography works with a tonal, subtly shifting score to make MMMMseem almost like a film Terrence Malick would make if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. It's intensity is the only thing that keeps you from wanting to see it again right away. The line between reality and paranoia is as hazy as the film's visual style, but the grip of Olsen's journey is enough to make the questions surround her character's experience haunting, as opposed to frustrating. [D.C.]

Friday, October 21st

The opening announcement from a festival staffer before Freak Dance seemed downright portentous: “After 15 minutes, the doors will be closed and no one will be allowed to enter or exit the theater to preserve the experience for the rest of the audience.” What were we in for, exactly? The answer to that question is less ominous than you might think: mostly, it’s a musical parody of the 21st century Teen Dance Movie genre, because sure, we need one of those. The movie runs a bit long, but it also reaches some impressive high points in its 98 minutes. Freak Dance comes from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade improv theater (and includes UCB alum Amy Poehler in a small role), and it aims to be a bit more incisive than the Scary Movie / Stan Helsing, "here's a scene from a hit movie, but with comedians re-enacting it" brand of Hollywood spoof. Yeah, they pick some of the low-hanging fruit from movies like the Step Up and the recent Footloose remake – there’s the “dancing as fighting the man” gag, and the “uptown girl with downtown guy” romance trope is poked fun at – but Freak Dance also takes shots at the way those movies condescend to their characters from “the streets,” the absurd anti-drug messages they cram into the scripts and the presentation of characters of color as hyper-sexualized. In short, for a movie with songs like “Rich White Bitch Work That Butt” in it, Freak Dance manages to balance being weird, gross, and uncomfortable with being really funny and successful satire. It could probably stand to lose 15 minutes from its run time – there were more than a few phone-checkers in the crowd as the third act started – but with genuinely impressive dancing, funny songs, and enough weird-ass jokes to carry the thing, Freak Dance works. It’s awfully weird, but it works. [D.S.]

Saturday, October 22nd

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.]

Sunday, October 23rd

If you describe Like Crazy to someone who hasn’t seen it, you’ll probably struggle to explain it in terms that don’t make it sound like a typical romantic comedy – and one with low stakes, at that. The plot isn’t exactly high-concept: an American boy and an English girl fall in love while attending college in California, and when visa issues force her to go back to London, they struggle to maintain their relationship across the Atlantic Ocean. But the film eschews just about every rom-com trope. In its script, in its editing and in its performances, the film blazes a much more compelling path. Like Crazy takes the basic “mumblecore” template of improvised dialogue, naturalistic performances, and avoiding plot points – but it uses those things to tell a powerful story. Call it Mumblecore 2.0 (or better yet, don’t). Director Drake Doremus takes some risky chances that could easily alienate an audience – the characters’ dilemma is the result of their own dumb choices early on, which doesn’t usually inspire sympathy – but his faith in his characters and his refusal to go for cheap melodrama pays them off. It’s a movie about love that doesn’t bother with the typical meet-cutes and plot beats, and the result is a film where the relationships actually feel lived-in. Like Crazy may well be the best film of the festival. [D.S.]

Monday, October 24th

Austin High got a bit of a drubbing in our recap of its first AFF screening on Saturday, but in the eyes of a different viewer, it’s a different film – the production values in the picture seemed pretty impressive to me, with animated sequences, a follow-the-bouncing-ball karaoke singalong, recurring graphic titles to introduce new characters and even a cameo by Dog The Bounty Hunter (director Alan Deutsch is the producer and director on his reality show). They even went so far as to use different fonts for different characters’ subtitles as appropriate – not the sort of attention to detail that gets taken into account very often. The performances, particularly that of co-writer/producer/star Michael S. Wilson, are mostly strong, as well. The film does struggle a bit in finding an identity: as a movie ostensibly about an Austin high school for and by the town’s ample stoner population, and the encroaching gentrification and development fears that are all too real in the city, it spends a lot of time waffling. The scenes between Wilson, who plays Lady Bird High School’s stoner principal, and his overachieving 8th grader (Taylor Stammen) are sincere and effective, the two carrying obvious chemistry. The scenes with Melinda Cohen’s evil Vice Principal Lambert, a new recruit out to destroy the party atmosphere at the school, are outright farce (“millions die from taking the pot!”, she exclaims to a student at one point). If the movie’s an absurdist farce, it doesn’t go far enough, and if it’s meant to have a heart, well, it’s hard to connect with a film that’ll toss its characterization in favor of an easy throwaway gag. With all that said, the jokes – at their best, anyway – are more than easy throwaways, and the film succeeds most when it’s using its more grounded elements to be really funny. Austin High aims to be something along the lines of Dazed and Confused meets Billy Madison; instead, it’s more like The Stoned Age meets Hot Shots Part Deux. But for a first-time director and a cast made up almost entirely of local talent, that’s still a very promising debut. [D.S.]

Tuesday, October 25th

The Artist received a twenty minute standing ovation at Cannes, so this black and white, silent(!) film has quite a bit of hype to live up to. Tonight's screening at the Paramount exceeded all expectations and, judging by the crowd's laughter, gasps and tumultuous applause, is set to garner all sorts of acclaim upon wider release in November. Watching The Artist at the Paramount proved especially delightful. Near the beginning, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) attends a premiere of his latest movie and the camera gives a full on view of the audience, seated in a theater almost identical to the the Paramount. The audience laughed in appreciation as we viewed a time capsule of ourselves in 1920s evening wear in black and white, underscored with orchestral music. After that playful opener, The Artist delivers numerous delights as the film toys with our expectations of sound and silence. Wait for the moments when Valentin is listening for the audience's applause or when sound suddenly become a menacing enemy or better yet, when the subtitle “Bang!” is used to momentarily confuse the audience. It's a lovely reminder of how much we take sound for granted, especially in our entertainment and of why silent movies were so popular. The actors buy into the conceit gracefully and walk the line between mugging and realism to great effect. Dujardin is charming and roguish as Valentin, and he's so genuinely taken with himself and his adorable dog that it's impossible to root against him. Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, the girl next door climbing the starlet ranks, pitch perfectly as she wrestles with her love for Valentin and her desire to be a success. John Goodman and James Cromwell also deliver performances so fit for silent movies that it almost makes you wish this would start a new trend. The popularity ofThe Artist at festivals probably doesn't signal the end of talkies, but its ability to rise above its conceit and offer a thoroughly enjoyable and artistic experience will place it first in line come Oscar season. [K.C.]

Wednesday, October 26th

Alexander Payne's highly anticipated The Descendants begins with far too much misleading voiceover. Star George Clooney, playing a man trying to deal with his two daughters after his wife is rendered comatose in a boating accident, plays the role so muted at first, and narrates his motivations instead, seeming to set up the film as no more than a glossy tv-movie. But it turns out to be almost a stylistic misdirect- as soon as a key piece of information about his wife's past is revealed, The Descendants shifts abruptly into a masterful unwinding of tension, resentment, and regrets that left nearly the entire audience sniffling by the end. It helps that after this same moment, the voiceover never returns. Clooney has finally found his Oscar homerun role, something that lets his slowly unravel the veneer of charm he brings to every role (incidentally he plays a millionaire that lives in Hawaii), something that Up In The Air hinted at but barely had time for. Clooney finds that time in the loose patience Alexander Payne's patient direction: graduating from the poignant but less weighty Sideways, Payne has honed his unique skill to mine laughter from misery simply by letting scenes of raw discomfort linger for several beats longer than most directors would dream of. With a strong supporting cast, beautifully shot Hawaiin setting, and a devastating but serene climax, The Descendants is unquestionably one of the year's best films, regardless of the awards it takes home. [D.C.]

  • Photo courtesy of Austin Film Festival

Quick hits: The good, the bad and the behind-the-scenes at Austin Film Festival— Wednesday, October 26

Austin Film Festival

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 Seven: Wednesday, October 26th

The good:

The longer film Cataplexy, directed by John Salcido, has a stuttering beginning, as a man opens his door to a surprise visit from an attractive, long-lost high school friend. Surprise! He called an escort and by some miracle, she's the lady assigned to visit him. Despite the shaky premise, the actors both deliver warm, likeable performances so when the guy confesses that he has to hire call girls because of an unusual disease, we're open to whatever strangeness is coming. Turns out he has cataplexy, a rare condition that triggers paralysis and unconsciousness when the patient feels strong emotions, in this case love. If he makes a real connection with someone, he'll freeze up and pass out. She's sympathetic and they have a lovely evening together, start to connect and then... not to give it away, but this was the only film of the evening that could possibly be expanded into a full-length feature. It has the perfect ending for a short film, but it would be fun to follow this new romance for another seventy-five minutes or so until they arrive at a happy ending. [K.C.]

Pass The Salt, Please, from Shorts Program 8, opens with a Betty Friedan quote and a Willie Nelson tune, but it seems to take its primary inspiration from Muhammad Ali, by performing a fake-out rope-a-dope that The Champ would be proud of. In its 13 minute runtime, it begins with the blandest of premises: an old married couple who bickers and can’t stand each other. But one you’re settled in for more of the same “married life is hell” routine, the short veers wildly into unexpectedly ribald territory. There’s no need to spoil it further, but suffice it to say that you’ll never look at Max Fischer’s dad or Daniel Faraday’s mom (did we mention that the two-person cast is surprisingly outstanding?) in the same way. [D.S.]

Alexander Payne's highly anticipated The Descendants begins with far too much misleading voiceover. Star George Clooney, playing a man trying to deal with his two daughters after his wife is rendered comatose in a boating accident, plays the role so muted at first, and narrates his motivations instead, seeming to set up the film as no more than a glossy tv-movie. But it turns out to be almost a stylistic misdirect- as soon as a key piece of information about his wife's past is revealed, The Descendants shifts abruptly into a masterful unwinding of tension, resentment, and regrets that left nearly the entire audience sniffling by the end. It helps that after this same moment, the voiceover never returns. Clooney has finally found his Oscar homerun role, something that lets his slowly unravel the veneer of charm he brings to every role (incidentally he plays a millionaire that lives in Hawaii), something that Up In The Air hinted at but barely had time for. Clooney finds that time in the loose patience Alexander Payne's patient direction: graduating from the poignant but less weighty Sideways, Payne has honed his unique skill to mine laughter from misery simply by letting scenes of raw discomfort linger for several beats longer than most directors would dream of. With a strong supporting cast, beautifully shot Hawaiin setting, and a devastating but serene climax, The Descendants is unquestionably one of the year's best films, regardless of the awards it takes home. [D.C.]

Another winner from the Wednesday night Shorts Program was Spit, a fun slice of well shot, high concept filmmaking that fit its short format perfectly. Spit is a fun little slice of Apatovian-style fun, with Brett Ryback as a likeable everyman who’s unable to kiss a girl after a traumatic childhood experience during which a bully spat in his mouth. It’s the perfect sort of story to tell in 11 minutes, demonstrating assured filmmaking from first-time director Benjamin Hayes, a writer’s assistant on True Blood, and some promising acting from Ryback and Sienna Farrall, who plays the girl of his dreams. [D.S.]

TwiLife (Victoria Lee Rudd) was the only documentary in the program. It chronicles the life perspectives and stories of about twenty senior citizens, as the filmmaker asks off-camera questions like, “Would you want to die while having sex?” She gets some funny and raunchy answers as the women discuss their still active sex drives and the men discuss masturbation and Cialis. In the first shot, an interviewer asks about sex but the older woman on camera keeps hearing the word “death” instead. It's a telling moment, as this short film runs the gamut from sex to love to death, letting the subjects reminisce and philosophize about each in turn. One woman, in a fantastic sweatshirt with a little fox appliqued below the word “Foxy”, especially stands out as the funky old lady all of the twenty-something hipsters are trying to look like. Without a solid through line to anchor it, TwiLife reaches a saturation point with talking heads and starts to meander. While the people onscreen are compelling at first, the film needs a more structured narrative in order to hold the audience's attention after the first ten minutes. [K.C.]

The bad:

We've got nothing against low-budget, independent filmmaking as a rule -- just the opposite, in fact, especially when the filmmakers work hard to find ways to make a dollar out of their fifteen-cent budget, like, say, Austin High does. But when the first thought you have upon the opening scene of a film is, "That looks cheap," you've got a problem. It's a problem that Let Go struggles to overcome, with a bland color palette, uninspired cinematography, poor lighting, and distractingly inconsistent sound dominating the viewing experience. It'd be easier to write that stuff off as the challenges that an underdog faces if the movie weren't positively stacked in the cast department: when you've got a single actor with a dozen Golden Globes and Emmys in your film, as Let Go’s Ed Asner does, making him—and Community’s Gillian Jacobs, and comedian Kevin Hart -- look bad is the sign of a bad movie. Let Go stars David Denman (The Office) as a depressed parole officer whose three new cases—the aforementioned trio of talented actors—spice up his life. The problem is that the script doesn't give any of the actors a real chance to develop chemistry with Denman, and his character is so poorly sketched (we don't learn anything about him besides what he does for a living until half an hour into the picture) that it's impossible to empathize. Which wouldn't necessarily be a problem, since the movie is at least partly meant as a comedy—except the dialogue is never particularly funny, and sight gags like Kevin Hart in a hot dog costume tend to burn out their appeal quickly. Let Go is a cheap-looking film with a dull script that wastes the talents of a gifted cast. This thing was just loaded with problems. [D.S.]

What do you get when you cross Adaptation with The Hills Have Eyes? A mess, it turns out. Director Justin Ostensen tries to make a heady, self-referential mixture out of Signe Olynyk's script, a "based on a true story" tale of the time she locked herself in a meat locker to cure writer's block. Edward Furlong plays a screenwriter attempting the very same thing, that quickly loses the border between reality and the horror script that he's working on. Horror icon Michael Berryman (from the original The Hills Have Eyes) does his best to liven up the horror sequences with his distinctive physicality, but ultimately the films is bogged down in a mess of self-indulgent metaphysics, and a character (Kristin Booth) with a grating, student-film-version-of-Fargo midwestern accent. [D.C.]

Sack Lunch (Jacqueline Gault) opens like a musical but instead of singing, there's a horrifying lunch that begins with the coffee pot dipped in the toilet bowl. It gets worse from there, and the film lovingly lingers over shots of the kitty litter box and of a scorned wife hocking phlegm into her soon to be ex-husband's sandwich. The film goes to such lengths with the disgusting lunch making, that it's almost a letdown to realize it's for her crappy husband, who doesn't even eat it onscreen. It all feels like a big buildup to nothing, as if this scene was taken out of context from a larger film. The gross out factor is a treat, if you're into that sort of thing and the wife's maniacal glee in rubbing sandwich bread on her cat's ass creates an effective parody of the love-as-food metaphor that gets tossed around so often. [K.C.]

The behind-the-scenes:

It’s worth remembering the existence of the shorts programs when planning your AFF schedule. Like the features, they’re often hit-or-miss, but unlike the features, even the most excruciating of these films are done in less than half an hour. It’s a good palette cleanser to make sure you see at least a few minutes of something good in between wildly uneven features. [D.S.]

The more crowded screenings at the Paramount found people adjusting their posture, placement, and head position for the best look at the screen. Don't sit right behind the first balcony isle, or the railing will be right in the middle of the screen (unless you're six feet tall), and too far into either wing and the old-fashioned luxury boxes will take up part of the sides. For screenings without balcony seating, avoiding the very back rows is important, otherwise the top of the screen will be cut off by the angle of the ceiling. It's a distinctive flavor to the hunt for the right seat, in a beautiful but unique venue for cinema. [D.C.]

  • Photo courtesy of Austin Film Festival
  • Fans anxiously waiting to get autographs.
    Photo by Jon Shapley
  • Austin Film Festival booklet
    Photo by Jon Shapley

Quick hits: The good, the bad and the behind-the-scenes at Austin Film Festival— Tuesday, October 25

austin film festival

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 Six: Tuesday, October 25th

The good:

The Artist received a twenty minute standing ovation at Cannes, so this black and white, silent(!) film has quite a bit of hype to live up to. Tonight's screening at the Paramount exceeded all expectations and, judging by the crowd's laughter, gasps and tumultuous applause, is set to garner all sorts of acclaim upon wider release in November. Watching The Artist at the Paramount proved especially delightful. Near the beginning, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) attends a premiere of his latest movie and the camera gives a full on view of the audience, seated in a theater almost identical to the the Paramount. The audience laughed in appreciation as we viewed a time capsule of ourselves in 1920s evening wear in black and white, underscored with orchestral music. After that playful opener, The Artist delivers numerous delights as the film toys with our expectations of sound and silence. Wait for the moments when Valentin is listening for the audience's applause or when sound suddenly become a menacing enemy or better yet, when the subtitle “Bang!” is used to momentarily confuse the audience. It's a lovely reminder of how much we take sound for granted, especially in our entertainment and of why silent movies were so popular. The actors buy into the conceit gracefully and walk the line between mugging and realism to great effect. Dujardin is charming and roguish as Valentin, and he's so genuinely taken with himself and his adorable dog that it's impossible to root against him. Bérénice Bejo plays Peppy Miller, the girl next door climbing the starlet ranks, pitch perfectly as she wrestles with her love for Valentin and her desire to be a success. John Goodman and James Cromwell also deliver performances so fit for silent movies that it almost makes you wish this would start a new trend. The popularity ofThe Artist at festivals probably doesn't signal the end of talkies, but its ability to rise above its conceit and offer a thoroughly enjoyable and artistic experience will place it first in line come Oscar season. [K.C.]

Michel Haznavicius' silent film The Artist will be the least likely Best Picture nominee ever. A self-indulgent, silly-at-times, wonderfully sentimental homage to the era before "talkies," it's a movie that wowed the festival crowd but wouldn't have seen the light of AFF, or several other festivals, without the good fortune to be picked up by The Weinstein Company for distribution. But it's a grand, opulent piece of cinematic nostalgia, essentially retelling Singin' In The Rain without sound. Unknown leads Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo put on a master class in acting through the subtlety of expression (and occasional shameless mugging), Ludovic Bource's score is just as classic as the film's old-style opening credits. For any fan of cinema history, it's a can't miss experience of what theater's were like over 70 years ago. [D.C.]

The bad:

Psychological thrillers tend to succeed primarily by staying at least two or three steps ahead of their audience, but there’s a responsibility that comes with that, too: they have to be way ahead of us, but they also to make sure that we can follow how they got there. The Woman In The Fifth struggles with the latter part of that objective, before deciding that it doesn’t really matter why anything we see happen is actually happening. The movie stars Ethan Hawke as an English professor and writer who comes to Paris to be closer to his daughter; within the first ten minutes of the movie he finds himself kicked out by his ex-wife, nearly arrested, robbed, destitute and indebted to a stranger who offers him a room in a fleabag hotel on the outskirts of the city. It’s a good start, and the movie sets up a series of salient mysteries: most intriguingly, the hotel owner offers him a job watching a security camera, occasionally allowing people to enter an unspecified room. What happens in that room is one of the many questions that – spoiler alert – the movie opts not to answer in favor of moody, atmospheric cutaways to close-up shots of various bugs and owls. It’s a shame, because if the movie had actually been about any of the things that it set up, there’d be plenty of compelling things to watch. Instead, we get a growly-voiced Ethan Hawke, alternating between speaking in French and English and a movie that it becomes increasingly difficult to care about once we realize that the filmmaker has dropped the stakes down to zero. [D.S.]

The behind-the-scenes:

The pre-screening bumpers at AFF are pretty neat this year, huh? They feature animated versions of various screenwriters – Shane Black and Ron Howard among them – talking about their writing process in quick, witty 20-second snippets. The festival is on day six now, and even if you’ve attended a movie or two a day since it started, it’s still possible to see new ones, which is evidence of a job well done. And, hell – the bumpers before Fantastic Fest films included unedited footage of a vasectomy being performed. The bar for pre-screening bumpers at film festivals in Austin is actually so low that just not being images of vasectomy surgery is enough to qualify as good – the fact that these are actually unique, and relevant to AFF’s marketing as “the writer’s festival,” is a bonus. [D.S.]

Moviegoers were introduced to a new system at the Texas Spirit Theater designed to allay some of the grumbles caused by number of attendees > number of seats equation that happened over the weekend. AFF volunteers gave everyone tiny blue tickets as they walked into the lines, ensuring that the volunteers knew exactly how many seats were left and that pass holders who arrived before the twenty five minute cutoff would be guaranteed a seat, even if a bunch of badge holders arrived at the last minute. The festival crowds shrink come Sunday night, so this was a little bit of locking the barn door after the horse and all that, but kudos to the Texas Spirit team for trying out some new solutions and being attuned to attendees' feedback. This is already a great venue that has shown some of the best films of the festival, so they should give themselves a gold star – or better yet, just change the color of that red star above the screen. [K.C.]

A suggestion for attendees of the Austin Film Festival that hopefully doesn’t come off as unkind: be careful of any world premiere screenings at AFF that include even modestly famous actors in the cast. This is a mid-tier festival, it’s fair to say – while it’s exceptionally well-organized and full of a number of outstanding films, it’s not Sundance or Telluride or Toronto, and we wouldn’t want it to be. But the catch there is that, unless it’s a movie with a particularly special tie to Texas, most filmmakers probably dreamed of premiering their picture at one of those more famous festivals. If a movie like 6 Month Rule, with Dave Foley, Martin Starr and John Michael Higgins, or Searching For Sonny, with Brian Dohring and Minka Kelley, is premiering at AFF next year, there’s a good chance that it’s debuting here because those larger-market festivals rejected it. Feel free to take your chances with some of the smaller or locally-produced world premieres, which can have real gems, but otherwise, might we suggest checking out movies that already succeeded at Sundance or Toronto? [D.S.]

Cinema fatigue has mostly set in after six entire days of festival mania (and the end of the conference portion on Sunday). The balcony remained closed at the Paramount for the screening of The Artist, hotly anticipated as it was, with more than a couple of people angling for the seats in the very back row, where one can rest their head against the wall. [D.C.]

  • Photo courtesy of Austin Film Festival
  • Fans anxiously waiting to get autographs.
    Photo by Jon Shapley
  • Austin Film Festival booklet
    Photo by Jon Shapley

Quick hits: The good, the bad and the behind-the-scenes at Austin Film Festival— Monday, October 24

austin film festival

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 Five: Monday, October 24th

The good:

Austin High got a bit of a drubbing in our recap of its first AFF screening on Saturday, but in the eyes of a different viewer, it’s a different film – the production values in the picture seemed pretty impressive to me, with animated sequences, a follow-the-bouncing-ball karaoke singalong, recurring graphic titles to introduce new characters and even a cameo by Dog The Bounty Hunter (director Alan Deutsch is the producer and director on his reality show). They even went so far as to use different fonts for different characters’ subtitles as appropriate – not the sort of attention to detail that gets taken into account very often. The performances, particularly that of co-writer/producer/star Michael S. Wilson, are mostly strong, as well. The film does struggle a bit in finding an identity: as a movie ostensibly about an Austin high school for and by the town’s ample stoner population, and the encroaching gentrification and development fears that are all too real in the city, it spends a lot of time waffling. The scenes between Wilson, who plays Lady Bird High School’s stoner principal, and his overachieving 8th grader (Taylor Stammen) are sincere and effective, the two carrying obvious chemistry. The scenes with Melinda Cohen’s evil Vice Principal Lambert, a new recruit out to destroy the party atmosphere at the school, are outright farce (“millions die from taking the pot!”, she exclaims to a student at one point). If the movie’s an absurdist farce, it doesn’t go far enough, and if it’s meant to have a heart, well, it’s hard to connect with a film that’ll toss its characterization in favor of an easy throwaway gag. With all that said, the jokes – at their best, anyway – are more than easy throwaways, and the film succeeds most when it’s using its more grounded elements to be really funny. Austin High aims to be something along the lines of Dazed and Confused meets Billy Madison; instead, it’s more like The Stoned Age meets Hot Shots Part Deux. But for a first-time director and a cast made up almost entirely of local talent, that’s still a very promising debut. [D.S.]

Pariah is the type of festival movie I like to call a "Day Ender." When you leave a Day Ender, you have the distinct feeling that nothing else you see that day could even come close to the experience you've just had and, barring any obligations to cover the remaining films on your day's schedule, you take some time off. Pariah is about Alike (Adepero Oduye), a teenage lesbian who hides her sexuality from her family and struggles to fully come to grips with it in her relationships outside of the home. What sets Pariah apart from similarly themed films is the organic nature of everything that happens, one never gets the feeling of watching actors deliver dialogue, real human beings on screen. The film never panders to any mainstream notion of how these sorts of stories should play out, writer/director Dee Rees is obviously working from a deeply personal place. Pariah delivers on every emotional level and in that sense is draining in the best way—it requires an investment and pays back in rich returns. [B.K.]

The Maiden and the Princess is an utterly charming short film written and directed by Aly Scher about a little girl trying to find her own story. Talulah Waymon-Harris plays Emmy, an adorable English schoolgirl who makes the fatal mistake of kissing another little girl on the playground. Her schoolmates taunt her and her parents sit her down on a very fancy sofa to express their shock and disapproval. Fortunately for Emmy, a rogue storyteller on The Grand High Council of Fairy Tale Rules and Standards decides to twist a hetero-normative tale into something much more delightful and helpful for the young protagonist. The film jumps back and forth between the real world, the fairy tale and the High Council's meeting room, where a group of gray faced men sit around wearing high collars and judging anything that isn't “traditional.” In the fairy tale world, the brunette Maiden (Lora Plattner) sings lovely songs of woe while she's taunted by her blonde siblings and spied upon by Emmy. This eighteen minute film has excellent production values, talented actors and a heartwarming ending – just like a Disney film. As Scher states on the website, “There was a Disney princess for every color of hair and every country, but no princess ever had a girlfriend.” Thanks to this film, now one does. [K.C.]

The bad:

It’s always exciting to see TV actors from beloved shows take on leading roles in features, and a festival like AFF is a good opportunity to do that. Maybe Hollywood hasn’t yet realized that Brian Dohring, Minka Kelley and Michael Hogan’s work on Veronica Mars, Friday Night Lights and Battlestar: Galactica has proven them more than capable of carrying a movie, but a low-budget indie director probably has! So it’s a shame that Searching For Sonny, the feature debut of Fort Worth filmmaker Andrew Disney, is so confused about what it is. To put it bluntly, Dohring – probably the most intuitive and capable actor in the film – seems to think that he’s in a movie where characters will have human emotions and motivations, while the rest of the cast believes that they’re meant to go for full-on silliness for most of the picture. Dohring stars as Elliott Knight, a bright young man who made a series of bad decisions in high school in an attempt to woo back his first love, Eden (Kelley), and is now a 28 year old pizza delivery boy. After receiving a postcard from an old high school friend who’s gone missing, Elliott and two friends go on a quest to track down their pal. By playing this straight, though, Dohring feels like he’s in an entirely different movie than Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney, who play his friends. The result is a movie that feels totally disjointed, and without strong enough jokes to make us not care that the thing makes no real sense. It’s clear that Dohring is more than capable of heading up a good movie – he just may not be up to the task of carrying a bad one all on his shoulders just yet. [D.S.]

The behind-the-scenes:

The Austin High Q&A was sort of like a victory lap for the local dudes who worked on and starred in the movie (seriously, there were like a dozen people on the stage after the screening and none of them were the women who appeared in the film.) Still, the best bit was when Brentley Heibron, who plays Austin High’s villainous city official “Tony Gennocide” (“pronounced Jenn-Oh-See-Day”), started heckling the assembled cast and crew from the audience, all while in character and wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with “Drill Barton Springs!” It was even better than crew member Bob Crain explaining how he built the film’s numerous bongs. [D.S.]

Pariah transcends genre to explore the complexity of sexuality, race andadolescence

austin film festival

Summarizing Pariah as a coming of age film about a young, African-American lesbian is accurate but ultimately reductive. Don't be fooled into thinking this is a niche film for gay audiences, or black audiences, or black lesbian audiences – its themes of secrecy, identity, love and family betrayal ring universal.

We first see Alike, played with incredible depth by Adepero Oduye, at a gay club decked out in a flat brimmed cap and oversized shirt. Her hair is scraped back and hidden and, like her best friend Laura (Pernell Walker), she could almost be taken for a boy. Laura encourages Li, as she calls her, to dance with (or at least hit on) all of the available women moving to the beat. This is a club, after all, and clubs are a marketplace for romance and sex. Alike won't do it though, and Laura chides her for being so inexperienced. “You got to pop that cherry,” she tells her.

But Alike wants more. She writes poetry, makes straight As and struggles, like any teenager, with how to express herself and her sexuality. Her mother (Kim Wayans) buys her pink blouses and tries to delay the inevitable by curtailing Alike's activities and forcing her to socialize with a church friend's daughter, Bina (Aasha Davis). Alike is a daddy's girl but her father (Charles Parnell) can't bring himself to confront his daughter, even after his friends make nasty comments and his wife terrorizes the family with her anger.

Pariah presents a cohesive portrait of a troubled family whose rift grows over the course of the film. Kim Wayans looks like she might combust at any moment with grief and rage, but the inevitable explosion does nothing to allay tensions within the family or heal anyone's wounds. Wayans and Parnell aptly portray a grim marriage sliding into mutual hatred. Alike's little sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse) may tease her but when their parents fight, she climbs into her big sister's bed and whispers, “You know it's okay with me, right?” Bina offers some solace but their friendship takes Alike away from Laura and complicates her life further.

There are no easy answers in this film, and writer/director Dee Rees eschews surface portrayals in order to really explore who these people are. She clearly articulates why clubs are a safe haven for gay and lesbian youth who might be judged and ostracized elsewhere, but also shows why that space still doesn't provide enough. Through Laura, Rees also lets us see how friends have to fill the holes that family won't, and why Laura's bulldog protection of Alike is necessary, especially when allies are few and far between. With lines like, “I like girls but I love guys,” and “I'm not gay gay,” the film also explores the minefield that young women certain in their sexuality must trip through when seeking other young women for relationships. There's plenty of flirtation and one night stands available, but when will Alike find someone who both makes her happy and is willing to tell other people that they're together?

Adepero Oduye's incandescent smile is a joy to see onscreen and she gives an amazing, multilayered performance. Pernell Walker also shines, letting Laura's hurt and uncertainty show through her good-time facade. There are no weak links in this cast, and their commitment speaks volumes about Rees' talents as a writer and director. Audiences of all persuasions will be drawn into this poignant, honest look at the secrets we have to keep from our families and friends. Focus Features acquired Pariah at Sundance so it will reach those wider audiences soon. Don't miss it.

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Learn more at Pariah's website.

  • James Franco sits on the Sal panel.
    Photo by Kevin Benz
  • Hair of the Dog at Ranch 616
    Photo by Kevin Benz

Quick hits: The good, the bad and the behind-the-scenes at Austin Film Festival— Sunday, October 23

austin film festival

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 Four: Sunday, October 23rd

The good:

If you describe Like Crazy to someone who hasn’t seen it, you’ll probably struggle to explain it in terms that don’t make it sound like a typical romantic comedy – and one with low stakes, at that. The plot isn’t exactly high-concept: an American boy and an English girl fall in love while attending college in California, and when visa issues force her to go back to London, they struggle to maintain their relationship across the Atlantic Ocean. But the film eschews just about every rom-com trope. In its script, in its editing and in its performances, the film blazes a much more compelling path. Like Crazy takes the basic “mumblecore” template of improvised dialogue, naturalistic performances, and avoiding plot points – but it uses those things to tell a powerful story. Call it Mumblecore 2.0 (or better yet, don’t). Director Drake Doremus takes some risky chances that could easily alienate an audience – the characters’ dilemma is the result of their own dumb choices early on, which doesn’t usually inspire sympathy – but his faith in his characters and his refusal to go for cheap melodrama pays them off. It’s a movie about love that doesn’t bother with the typical meet-cutes and plot beats, and the result is a film where the relationships actually feel lived-in. Like Crazy may well be the best film of the festival. [D.S.]

Like Crazy played out like an extended version of its trailer. Director Drake Doremus indulges throughout in sentimental montages, elegiac indie music and wistfully framed shots of his stars meaningfully separated by window panes and objects in the foreground. Anton Yelchin plays an American student that falls for a British student (newcomer Felicity Jones), who later gets banned from the United States for overstaying her student visa. The visa issue becomes basically the entire plot, separating them for years as they decide whether to weather the time apart or move on, which means fully two thirds of the film consists of the photogenic leads staring meaningfully out windows or spacing out during conversations. But if you're prone to meaningful staring yourself it can't help but hit you where it counts: Yelchin and Jones' chemistry is unmistakable and relatably complex, and the editing-as-memory of the film feels like time passing. By the end, Like Crazy is less about visa problems and these two specific people than the roads not taken, and the moments you come out of a lingering memory and realize you've been holding your breath. [D.C.]

Before Like Crazy even started this afternoon at the Paramount, director Drake Doremus admitted that it was a personal film even if unlike the main character, he doesn't make furniture. In the film, Anna (Felicity Jones in her first American film), a British college student, falls for her American classmate Jacob (Anton Yelchin) but when she overstays her student visa, she's sent home to London and banned from entering the U.S. The film follows Jacob and Anna's long distance relationship and their attempts to connect across two continents. The chemistry between the two is undeniable but according to Doremus, the actors who portrayed them didn't meet until after they were both cast. At the Q&A following the film, Doremus told the audience that “Anton was involved early in the process but Felicity was a late addition. She sent me a tape from London and I took a chance. We met on a Monday and started shooting that Saturday.” When asked about his personal connection to the film, Doremus said, “This stemmed from personal experiences – dating someone from overseas, having her visa get revoked, getting married for a visa.” Although the film takes the main plot points from his life, he stressed that Anna and Jacob are fictional characters. The actors also improvised all of the dialogue so unless Doremus was whispering lines from his own memories into their ears, Like Crazy isn't exactly recreating his own long distance romance. “Love is the antagonist. It causes [Jacob and Anna] to make decisions that aren't the best for them.” Doremus summed it all up by saying, “In the end, relationships are difficult whether you're two feet away from someone or hundreds of miles away. I hope we showed that.” [K.C.]

At the end of The Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, the audience audibly gasped, then applauded at grainy VHS footage of a man playing a video game. Ably surpassing a large debt owed to Seth Gordon's The King of Kong, Adam Cornelius's documentary follows the world's best Tetris players as the first attempt to crown a champion is mounted. It's a much more collegiate, positive narrative than Kong, but a powerfully compelling figure emerges in Thor Aackerlund, a former 14-year-old World Nintendo Champion that left the game behind years ago and has become legend to current players for his ability to vibrate the controller to move the pieces faster. There are plenty of other memorable eccentrics involved, naturally, but by the time Aackerlund makes an appearance and explains his tragic story (his family dealt with such poverty that at one point he supported them winning video game competitions and endorsements), the competition itself becomes an afterthought. [D.C.]

There’s no need to worry that Beavis and Butthead would feel dated in its return to television, even though it’s been 14 years since the animated duo stalked MTV. The show’s core concept – that MTV’s programming is stupid, and so are the people who watch it – is the sort of classic that never goes out of style, and it’s only gotten more relevant as the network’s made the switch from showing the occasional music video to being our culture’s primary purveyor of dumb reality shows. In the midst of their adventures, Butthead and his pal Beavis take on 16 And Pregnant and Jersey Shore in the first episode of the revived series, which screened Sunday night at the Paramount. Creator Mike Judge has lost none of his incisiveness as his animated idiots make fun of the shows, and it’s likely that a new generation of MTV viewers will relate to the network’s loathing of its programming. “This chick is a horrible actor,” Butthead says as they watch 16 And Pregnant, before realizing that it’s a documentary. “She’s not a bad actor, just a bad person,” Beavis clarifies. A more succinct explanation of reality television, we’ve yet to see. [D.S.]

Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters is a magnificent documentary about the world's most played videogame. The film briefly covers the history of the game, discusses some basic and advanced strategies, and covers milestones in the world of Tetris score keeping (like the breakthrough "max out" score of 999,999 being reached and documented for the first time). The central focus, though, is the quest to find the world's greatest Tetris player by holding the first ever Classic Tetris World Championship. The audience is introduced to players from across the country who are hoping to win the title, each obsessive person is profiled lovingly and without any hint of mockery making it almost impossible to choose a single person to root for in the inevitable third act showdowns. There's a great underlying tension in the first half regarding whether or not former Nintendo World Champion Thor Aackerlund will come back into the spotlight after years of near-silence. Full of delightful characters, fascinating Tetris insider tidbits, and nail-biting competitions, Ecstasy of Order is a tremendously entertaining documentary that will please anyone who has or hasn't played Tetris. Sadly, the film has had its final screening at AFF but keep your eyes out for this one in the future. [B.K.]

James Franco introduced his new film at the Paramount Sunday at noon. Sal documents Sal Mineo's last day before being murdered in 1976. Mineo rose to acting prominence as an Oscar-nominated teenager in Exodus and Rebel without a Cause, where he became friends with James Dean. Franco describes the film following Mineo as kind of an "angel on his shoulder"style; it's shot tight, almost uncomfortably so. Franco uses extreme close-ups and a slow pace to lead the audience through a regular day in the life of a washed up movie star, who is in many ways on the edge of succeeding in getting his career going again. While we know what will happen in the end, Franco manages to manipulate the audience and you will find yourself getting anxious as the sun goes down on Mineo's day as we know a murder is about to happen—we just don't know when. Franco brilliantly adds real television news coverage to add context to the film. Sal will never get wide distribution, it's just not that kind of film, but it is well worth watching as Franco uses original and emotional ways to tell a story in which the entire audience already knows the outcome, and star Val Lauren is spectacular bringing Mineo to the screen. [K.B.]

The bad:

We loved everything we saw on Sunday!

The behind-the-scenes:

Hopefully MTV didn’t miscalculate when choosing to revive Beavis and Butthead. While the show’s very funny in its first episode, they sure seemed to have a hard time packing the house at the Paramount. Passersby on Congress were shouted at by people in bright blue Beavis and Butthead t-shirts offering them free entrance into the theater like the barkers on 6th Street advertising jello shots, ostensibly to pack the house after a lack of interest among festival attendees. In the end, it worked – the lower level of the Paramount was pretty full when the screening started, and the room erupted when Mike Judge came out to introduce the screening. Maybe festival attendees just didn’t want to skip the other screenings to see something that they’ll be able to watch at home in a few days? [D.S.]

Standing in the pass line at AFF can be a roller coaster of hope, desperation, despair and joy. Pass holders angrily eye those wearing badges only a few feet away and converse in hushed, angry tones when volunteers don't enforce the “everyone must be in line 25 minutes before the screening time” rule. In the half hour before at least three different screenings over the weekend, a pass holder asked in an indignant tone, “Why are those people going in first?” while gesturing at the director, producer and/or cast members as they filed into the theater before everyone else. The response, “They made the film,” barely soothed ruffled feathers as people tried to calculate their odds of getting in v. the number of badge holders v. the number of seats in the theater v. that guy just got here why is he going in ahead of me I've been here for over an hour! “No cutting in line” is the one of the first rules of childhood, so tiered admissions highlight the inherent unfairness of festivals. As long as someone can buy their way to the front, the lesser-thans will continue to grumble while wishing that they too were being whisked into choice seats. Until an Occupy the Festival movement occurs, organizers will continue to favor those who put down the large amounts of money that ultimately sustain the programming. [K.C.]

The free parking on Sunday was a welcome respite from paying $3.00 an hour until midnight on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But this correspondent instead found himself walking several blocks here and there, after parking so many times in the same vague capitol area, unable to remember where he parked in the first place.[D.C.]

In another instance of demand exceeding supply, every square inch of usable space was utilized at the Alamo Ritz on Sunday for the second screening of Beneath the Darkness. Badge and pass holders took what looked to be every seat available while there was still a large line of individuals in the lobby hoping to purchase tickets. The resourceful Alamo staff along with AFF volunteers brought some chairs in and lined them against the back wall behind some couches. Someone was even spotted pulling office chairs out of the Alamo backroom and placing them in front of the first row under the screen. It's hard to say if everyone who was waiting eventually go in, but certainly every attempt was made. [B.K.]

The Austin Film festival obviously targets folks who love movies and, based on the lines outside theaters this weekend, those fans showed up. But a vastly overlooked benefit of attending AFF is the networking and introductions you can enjoy at the social events. If you spend time talking to people you don't know, you will meet a lot of very interesting folks. In less than 30 minutes Sunday morning at the Hair of the Dog brunch, we heard two fascinating pitches for independent films.The Hair of the Dog Brunch has become a can't-miss event—mostly because of the spectacular food and tequila drinks coming from Kevin Williamson and his Ranch 616 restaurant. We met Shayan Bayat, who wrote an incredible screenplay about an Afghan-American soldier and is pitching it around the festival, and we met Bora Ercan, a Turkish-American filmmaker who came to AFF looking for a director and main crew for his 9/11 love story. He is right now vetting an Austin director he thinks might be right for the job. [K.B.]

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H-E-B unveils merch for super fans, plus more hot Austin headlines

Hot Headlines

Editor’s note: It’s that time again — time to check in with our top stories. Here are five articles that captured our collective attention over the past seven days.

1. H-E-B unveils merchandise for brand super fans, available exclusively at one store. Kerrville was chosen to launch the company's new line of H-E-B-branded merchandise in celebration of its 117th anniversary.

2. Austin bar transforms into a magical winter wonderland this holiday season. Don your favorite elf socks and meet the lovely citizens of “Tinseltown.”

3. Draft 'Vision Plan' for Zilker Park unveils land bridge and more possibilities. Austinites are invited to comment on a vision plan that will inform the future of Zilker Park.

4. Austin ranks among world’s 100 best cities in prestigious new report. Austin is the No. 43 best city in the world, according to a new study. (And yes, we beat Dallas.)

5. Austin airport launches new SkySquad travel assistants in time for the holiday rush. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is keeping lines moving during a period of heavy travel with a new team of airport assistants.

Steven Spielberg opens up personal history in The Fabelmans

Movie Review

For over 40 years, director Steven Spielberg has been delivering some of the most popular blockbuster movies of all time as well as a bevy of Oscar-quality dramas, a combination that’s unique to him. For his latest, The Fabelmans, he’s decided to go more personal than ever, telling a thinly-veiled version of his own childhood.

Sammy (played mostly by Gabriel LaBelle) is one of four children – and the only son – of Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a concert pianist, and Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), a computer engineer. From an early age, Sammy is enthralled by the art of filmmaking, first remaking a train crash sequence from The Greatest Show on Earth, and gradually moving on to more adventurous stories.

Burt’s advancing career, which moves the family from New Jersey to Arizona to California, causes stress for various members of the family, most notably Sammy and Mitzi. Sammy must deal with anti-Semitic bullies, while Mitzi falls deeper into a mental health crisis. Sammy’s movies continually offer a respite for the family, though, giving him a creative outlet and the rest of them a chance to forget their troubles for a while.

Written by Spielberg – his first writing effort since 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence – and Tony Kushner, the film is heavy on emotions but presented in a way that those feelings don’t always translate. Spielberg is no stranger to depicting fraught family situations in his long career, but in showing ones from his own family, it feels like he pulled back, not wanting the scenes to be overwrought or schmaltzy.

The result is a story that isn’t as universal as some of his other films. As the film is told from Sammy’s perspective, it’s easy to get caught up in his pursuits and various discoveries as he gets older. The mindsets of the rest of the family are less clear, even though his parents and sisters are ever-present. Mitzi’s state of mind is a concern from the start, but it’s not always treated as such by other important characters.

Just as Sammy’s movies are an escape for his family, so too are they some of the best parts of the film. Sammy figuring out the process and secrets of filmmaking is informative and often thrilling, especially if you’re a cinephile. Spielberg has been considered a master for so long that watching him revisit the days when he was learning as he went is catnip for movie lovers.

In addition to being a dead ringer for a teenage Spielberg, LaBelle is a fantastic actor. It’s no easy feat to carry a movie on your shoulders, and LaBelle makes the assignment look easy. Williams’ performance will likely be more polarizing; she employs a very mannered speech pattern that works in some situations, but not all. The film also includes memorable short appearances by Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, and David Lynch.

Spielberg has provided the moviegoing public with such pleasure over the years that he deserves to have a movie that’s mostly for him. The initial viewing of The Fabelmans left this critic wanting, but perhaps it will gain more traction on a second screening.

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The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters.

Photo by Merie Weismuller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

Gabriel LaBelle in The Fabelmans

Texas billionaire Tilman Fertitta acquires award-winning California resort

tilman goes laguna

Fans of Tilman Fertitta's nationwide hospitality brands are in for a treat. The Billion Dollar Buyer has just secured an award-winning, 30-acre resort in sunny Southern California.

Fertitta has purchased the acclaimed Montage Laguna Beach Resort Hotel, a premier beachfront property in the sunny SoCal getaway destination. Notably, the Montage Laguna Beach Resort Hotel is one of only six hotels in the U.S. to score the Forbes Triple Five-Star hotel status. The Montage has also been included among Travel + Leisure’s Top Hotels in the World.

Image courtesy of Montage Laguna Beach

Fertitta's newest purchase overlooks the ocean in Laguna Beach.

“I am truly thrilled to acquire this world-renowned property and add one of America’s most iconic trophy resorts to our luxury hotel portfolio,” Fertitta noted in a statement. “I have been traveling to Laguna Beach for over 30 years. It is one of my favorite places to visit and one of the most beautiful areas in the world. The Montage is a stunning oceanfront property and one of the premier hotel brands in the world.”

Press materials didn't list the property purchase price, but Law360 reports that the deal is in excess of $660 million.

The Craftsman-style resort sits on a coastal bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Impressive amenities are highlighted by the 20,000-square-foot Spa Montage, which offers eucalyptus steam rooms, dry redwood saunas, ocean air whirlpools, fireplace lounges, a state-of-the-art fitness center, a movement studio, and a lap pool.

More outdoor fun includes two pools and direct beach access, a museum-quality fine art collection, and more than 20,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, per press materials.

Every resident space — the 260 guestrooms, including 60 suites, beach bungalow-style rooms, and multi-bedroom villas — boast stunning views of the Pacific.

Dining destinations offer chef-driven interpretations of coastal California flavors inspired by region. The property is designated and included in the distinctive Legend Collection of Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.

“We are thrilled that Tilman is the new owner of this one-of-a-kind property and welcome him into the Montage family,” said Alan Fuerstman, founder, CEO, and chairman of Montage International. Mary Rogers, the Montage's GM added, “The staff is thrilled to be working with Tilman. Everyone here at the property is tremendously excited about his purchase and look forward to continuing to provide a world-class experience to all of our guests."

Aside from his palatial Post Oak Hotel in Houston, Fertitta also owns 14 other hotel properties around the country, including the award-winning San Luis Resort in Galveston, plus five popular Golden Nugget casino and hotel locations.

Another feather in Fertitta’s luxury portfolio cap is the iconic Huntting Inn, one of the most charming and historic locales in East Hampton, New York.

No stranger to California, Fertitta's presence there includes Catch Seafood and Catch Steak, Mastro’s Ocean Club and Mastro’s Steakhouse, Morton’s The Steakhouse, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, The Palm, and more — all part of his 60 brands and more than 600 concepts nationwide.