Briscoe Center acquires the Paul Stekler Film Archive

The Briscoe Center has acquired the archive of award-winning filmmaker and UT professor Paul Stekler.

A promotional image for  "George Wallace"
A promotional image for
“George Wallace”

Stekler’s documentaries have been broadcast across PBS stations frequently over the last three decades. In celebration, the Briscoe Center, will host Reel Politics: Paul Stekler on his Films and Career, Oct. 15 on the UT campus.

Stekler’s work includes “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” “Last Man Standing: Politics, Texas Style,” “Vote for Me: Politics in America,” two segments of the “Eyes on the Prize II” series and “Getting Back to Abnormal,” on New Orleans’s post–Hurricane Katrina recovery.

The archive includes raw footage and rough cuts from his documentary projects. Researchers can access transcripts of interviews, cue sheets, scripts and footage logs, as well as letters and project research materials like books and news clippings. Collection highlights include correspondence with Bill Moyers and Molly Ivins and interviews with Karl Rove.

Stekler’s films have won two George Foster Peabody Awards, three Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Journalism Awards, three national Emmy Awards, and a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Stekler is a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the chair of the Radio-Television-Film department at UT Austin. He is also a member of the Austin Film Society’s advisory board.

‘Legend’ to kick off AFF; Singleton, Cooper set for honors

London's most notorious gangsters, Reggie and Ron Kray, both portrayed by Tom Hardy in an amazing double performance. "Legend" is a classic crime thriller taking us into the secret history of the 1960s and the extraordinary events that secured the infamy of the Kray twins.
London’s most notorious gangsters, Reggie and Ron Kray, are portrayed by Tom Hardy in “Legend,” which will open the Austin Film Festival. (Universal Pictures)

The Austin Film Festival announced its full lineup Wednesday for the 22nd annual event that starts Oct. 29, with more than 20 world and North American premieres.

New movies in the lineup include the opening-night film “Legend,” starring Tom Hardy in a dual role as English gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, and “Burning Bodhi,” a world premiere starring Andy Buckley, Kaley Cuoco, Landon Liboiron and Eli Vargas.

Director John Singleton will receive the Extraordinary Contribution to Film Award at the Austin Film Festival. (Laura Noel/Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Director John Singleton will receive the Extraordinary Contribution to Film Award at the Austin Film Festival. (Laura Noel/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The festival also said that director John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood”) will accept the Extraordinary Contribution to Film Award and that Chris Cooper (“American Beauty”) will receive the Extraordinary Contribution to Acting Award at the annual luncheon set for Oct. 31. They join previously announced honorees Norman Lear, for Outstanding Television Writer, and Brian Helgeland, the screenwriter of “Legend” as well as “Mystic River” and “L.A. Confidential,” who’ll get the Distinguished Screenwriter Award.

During the festival, Singleton will present a retrospective screening of “Boyz n the Hood,” for which he received Oscar nominations for best director and screenplay in 1991.

Other high-profile titles that’ll screen at the festival include: “Go With Me,” with actress Julia Stiles and director Daniel Alfredson in attendance; “Miss You Already,” directed by University of Texas graduate Catherine Hardwicke; “Last Days in the Desert,” a starring Ewan McGregor as Jesus, with writer/director Rodrigo Garcia in attendance; “Man Up,” a romantic comedy starring Lake Bell and Simon Pegg, with writer Tess Morris in attendance; “By Sidney Lumet,” a documentary about the filmmaker behind “Dog Day Afternoon”; “Brooklyn,” a romance starring Saoirse Ronan and written by Nick Hornby; “Remember,” a new thriller from Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan; “Mojave,” a thriller starring Oscar Isaac and Mark Wahlberg; and “The Adderall Diaries,” a drama starring James Franco and Austin’s Amber Heard.

Chris Cooper will receive an acting award from the Austin Film Festival. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Chris Cooper will receive an acting award from the Austin Film Festival. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

World premieres include “Jack’s Apocalypse” from Austin’s Will Moore; “Until 20,” “A Single Frame” and “We’re Still Here: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited.”

High-profile titles that were previously announced include “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; “I Saw the Light,” starring Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams; and “Youth,” from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino and starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel.

The full screenwriters conference schedule has also been released. It’s held the first four days of the festival and features such writers as Michael Arndt, Amy Berg, Shane Black, Jack Burditt, Charles Burnett, John Lee Hancock, Simon Kinberg, Jenny Lumet, Nicole Perlman and Jason Reitman.

For the full festival and conference schedule, visit http://www.austinfilmfestival.com.

Fantastic Fest 2015: Foreboding terror permeates “The Witch”

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in "The Witch"
Anya Taylor-Joy stars in “The Witch”

Genre fanatics have been buzzing about “The Witch” since it debuted at Sundance earlier this year. It screened in competition, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and walked away with the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category for first time filmmaker Robert Eggers.

Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” the film takes place in 1630 where William (Ralph Inesone) and his family are thrown off the plantation where they live due to a disagreement that is never fully made clear. They forge ahead and settle on the edge of a wooded area, where they struggle to grow crops and survive away from their previous community.

Oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy) is playing outside with her newborn baby brother Samuel, when he disappears during a game of peek-a-boo. One moment he is wrapped in a blanket before her eyes and the next moment he is gone. This prompts the household to descend into chaos, with accusations of witchcraft and black magic.

Katherine (Kate Dickie) is the matriarch of the family and has a hard time holding it together, already suffering from depression since leaving England and subsequently being banished from the plantation. After a failed hunting trip into the woods to hunt for food, William’s young son Caleb (newcomer Harvey Scrimshaw, who gets one of the film’s most haunting sequences) becomes determined to help pull his family back together, but doesn’t bargain for what awaits him under cover of darkness.

Technically, this film is a marvel. Staying true to the time period, every scene is shot only by natural light or candlelight, to the point where you feel like you have to squint sometimes to make out some of the interior evening scenes. Mark Korven’s score is an integral part of supplying the film’s ominous mood, as important as any of the situations the characters find themselves in to prod the nerves. The string-heavy music is accented by a choir that combines with the visuals for a genuine racheting up of tension. It also doesn’t hurt that the chosen aspect ratio of 1.66:1 literally boxes us in and adds a subtle undercurrent of feeling trapped in the wilderness.

Eggers directed and wrote the screenplay, which was painstakingly researched and features dialogue that is based on court documents and period sources from historical accounts of witchcraft. Much like the lives of those during this time period, the film is slow-paced, but not problematic. It’s deliberate, but exciting.

It’s unfortunate that general audiences will not get a chance to enjoy “The Witch” in time for Halloween, but good things come to those who wait.

“The Witch” screens again at 9 p.m. Tuesday. A24 is expected to release the film nationwide on February 26, 2016. 

Fantastic Fest 2015: “Zoom” provides mixed media with a message

Gael Garcia Bernal in "Zoom"
Gael Garcia Bernal in “Zoom”

One of the greatest things about attending Fantastic Fest each year is that it reminds you that you haven’t seen it all before. This is a festival where creativity is championed in a major way and the very notion of what a genre film is can often be challenged.

A Canadian and Brazilian co-production directed by Pedro Morelli, “Zoom” is a fresh and truly original tale that examines complex issues of body image and vanity in a lighthearted way. It takes some time to figure out what direction the movie is going in.

Emma (Alison Pill,”The Newsroom,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”) works in a sex toy factory, spending her days delicately painting the bodies of realistic looking “love dolls” that are custom made for clients. Surrounded by amply proportioned female dolls, she yearns for her own breasts to be larger. Emma sees a plastic surgeon only to discover after the surgery that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

When she’s not at work, Emma is illustrating her own graphic novel – the story of a well-endowed film director (Gael García Bernal, who only appears on screen animated) who is fighting with a Hollywood executive over the ending of his latest movie. Michelle, the lead character in his film (played by Mariana Ximenes), is a Brazilian model who is longing to be a writer, but is fighting against the misconception that she’s only a pretty face. 

All of these characters find their stories folding into one another in a way that an audience member during the Q&A described as “breaking the fourth wall, by three.” Screenwriter Matt Hansen somehow manages to juggle the multi-dimensional stories and merges them into a hysterical voyage that reminds us all that karma is a real bitch.

Approximately 30 minutes of “Zoom” are presented in animated form, with over 20,000 frames from filmed scenes that were rotoscoped in a similar fashion to Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life.” The whole kit and caboodle is brilliantly scored by Kid Koala, whose compositions become a large part of pushing the narrative along.

Delightfully raunchy and surprisingly sweet, “Zoom” will hopefully find an audience beyond the festival circuit.

“Zoom” screens again at 2:15 p.m. Monday. 

Fantastic Fest 2015: “Daniel’s World” tackles taboo topic

The subject of "Daniel's World"
An image from “Daniel’s World”

Daniel is 25 years old. He’s a student, a writer and a self-confessed pedophile.

I’m not sure if there is any topic that is off limits at Fantastic Fest, but this is a subject area that most people would like to not spend much time thinking about. Veronika Liskova’s documentary about Daniel was made for Czech television and is a fairly sympathetic portrait of a man who struggles with his attractions and tries to find a way to tame them.

He meets up with other men in his area who share his predilection, all of whom claim that they spend their entire lives without harming children, despite their desires. In Daniel’s case, he’s in the process of “coming out” to others and trying to figure out what the future for his life can be without the companionship he longs for.

Daniel goes to have his attractions measured by a sexual therapist who confirms that his sexual response is strongest in images of boys from aged 8-10. “It’s a pity that your spectrum does not include adult men,” the sexologist says when Daniel asks if he can have a happy life. Instead, he relies on small groups of like-minded people in real life and online to reconcile his feelings.

It is nevertheless troubling to see that Daniel’s dorm room walls are filled with collages of young children – not sexual photographs, mostly magazine advertisements that have been pasted together on cardboard that can be easily taken down if other people come over – and that he has professed his love for the son of a friend who he longs to be around and get hugs from.

The biggest question that most viewers will have after watching this documentary is if it’s even possible for these desires to remain fantasies that are never acted upon? It’s an uncomfortable uncertainty that “Daniel’s World” provides no easy answers for.

“Daniel’s World” screens again at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday, October 1. 

Fantastic Fest 2015: “Too Late” screens in glorious 35mm

John Hawkes and Dichen Lachman star in "Too Late"
John Hawkes & Dichen Lachman in “Too Late”

Former Austinite John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) rules every frame of his performance as a tough private investigator with a heart of gold named Samspon in “Too Late.” And I do mean every frame, as the debut feature from Dennis Hauck was shot on film and projected on 35mm during Fantastic Fest. It was only a few years ago when this wouldn’t have been uncommon, but now it’s a true rarity.

In one of the film’s first scenes, Dorothy (Crystal Reed, MTV’s “Teen Wolf”) is on walking on Radio Hill and borrows a stranger’s phone to make a call to Sampson. As downtown Los Angeles looms large in the background, the camera tracks beyond her, into the city and onto a balcony where the call is answered. This happens in a very long, carefully orchestrated take that eventually goes to split screen to get us just a little bit closer to the action. Each reel continues on like this, with five continuous episodic takes that pass by without edits. In fact, the closing credits state that “no hidden cuts were used in the making of this movie.”

These are techniques that set the movie apart, but also never let you forget that you’re watching a movie. The long takes and tracking shots can be distracting, but not as much as the dialogue. Hawkes elevates the occasionally weak, but ambitious script with a bravura performance that illustrates again why he’s one of the best character actors on the scene. The supporting cast includes Robert Forster (whose brief on-screen time feels phoned in), Joanna Cassidy, Vail Bloom, David Yow from The Jesus Lizard and former “Dollhouse” star Dichen Lachman.

It’s hard not to look at some of the technical aspects of the film and casting choices as gimmicks. “Too Late” is a throwback to indie films of the 1990s that we don’t see often anymore and that alone is enough to recommend it. Bonus points from me for a moody soundtrack that includes Nick Cave, the Cowboy Junkies and an original song performed by Hawkes on guitar.

The producers of “Too Late” are currently searching for a distributor that will commit to releasing it to theaters in 35mm. It screens again on film at the festival on Tuesday at 5:45 p.m.

Fantastic Fest 2015: “High-Rise” is Apocalypse Then

Director Ben Wheatley’s gorgeous and disturbing “High-Rise,” based on J.G. Ballard’s classic 1975 novel, isn’t science-fiction the same way that, well, the novel wasn’t quite science-fiction.

HIGH-RISEIndeed, it’s a period piece, albeit one that opens with the titular building in (literal) bloody chaos, garbage in piles, small fires everywhere,  a tattered and worn Tom Hiddleston performing the novel’s infamous opening line: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

Shot on location in Northern Ireland and with everyone in sharp, eye-popping period clothing and hair  “High-Rise” is faithful to the Thatcherism-predicting novel (not for nothing does the Iron Lady’s voice make a cameo).

"HIgh-Rise"
“HIgh-Rise”

Its cold savagery and its juxtaposition of extremities — emotional, visual, physical — are more or less intact, even to the point of the narrative losing focus about two-thirds of the way through and devolving into, in the words of Wire’s 1977 song “Reuters: “looting….burning…rape.”

Three months before the dog-consumption, Hiddleston is Dr. Robert Laing, a doctor moving into the 27th floor of a massive apartment. Young, pleasant and sharply dressed, yet somewhat polite and distant in the class British manner,Laing’s sister has recently died, he is looking for a new start and a flat on the 27th floor seems a pretty good get. The building’s social structure reveals itself to Laing quickly.

The higher floors are for the wealthy, such as building designer Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his snobbish wife Ann (Keely Hawes, who has aged into Kristin Scott Thomas somehow). Single mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) lives on Laing’s floor; the lower floors are occupied by poorer, “proper families” with children such as the documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (a terrific Luke Evans), his wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss, and not enough of her).  Where Royal’s apartment is opulent to the point of insanity (a horse on the roof), Laing’s is modernist empty and the Wilder’s is cluttered with life (kids, plants) and toys.

While Laing goes to work at a hospital, the building is clearly designed to be isolating — one can exercise and grocery shop within its confines. With bright light, solid colors and sharp compositions, Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose gives everything a Kubrickian pop and feel (it is not impossible to imagine Alex and his droogs as the children left at the end of the film).

But things slowly, then quickly, devolve, entropy increased like a snowball down a hill. Laing plays a nasty joke on an annoying colleague with deadly results. Power goes out on the lower floors, making it hard to keep house.  A pool party for the rich is crashed by Wilder and children. Kids stop going to school. Violence flowers. Everyone pretty well loses his or her mind. The police don’t bother to investigate — outside of the building, all is normal. Inside?

Chaos, as they say, reigns.

Except it is a little fuzzy exactly why it all goes terribly wrong. In the book, Ballard could get away with making this a gradual thing, not to mention allegorical, but film is a less forgiving medium when it comes to motivation and Wheatley isn’t in a position to fudge this. Which he does.

We are never entirely sure not only why the wheels come off, but why they come off in such spectacular fashion. Does the mob go wild just because that is what mobs do? Is it class stratification, the higher up you are, the more you see the world below as insects? Do the stresses of consumerist culture make us all a few electricity-free days away from eating the dog?

So enjoy “High-Rise” for the glorious cinematography, a 40-year old vision of a world gone mad and such 70s post-modern rockers as Can, Amon Duul and the Fall (not to mention Abba) on the soundtrack. Squirm at the sometimes sadistic violence and lines such as “Now he’s raping people he’s not supposed to” and yet another couple of dead dogs (by now a Fantastic Fest tradition, somehow).

And, yes, you get to see Tom Hiddleston dance.

“High-Rise” screens again 5:15 Monday.

Fantastic Fest 2015: The extraordinary “Anomalisa” is both innovative and vintage Kaufman

What is so striking about Charlie Kaufman’s amazing “Anomalisa” is not that it feels so alien, it’s that it feels so familiar.

"Anomalisa"
“Anomalisa”

It is a story the type of which many feel we do not need more: A white, male, middle-class, middle-aged man checks into a hotel for a business conference and has something resembling a mid-life crisis, complete with drunkenness, infidelity and poor judgement about gifts for his son.

It is a story the type of which we expect from Kaufman, the writer behind such mind-benders as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

There are investigations into the nature of identity and consciousness,  simulacra (well, that’s a big one; see below), Jungian dream sequences, a fear of death and moments of pacing in which the master’s line is visible, sharply and distinctly.

And then there’s the fact that “Anamolisa” is entirely stop-motion animated by co-director Duke Johnson (“Moral Orel”). At first, it’s baffling — the puppets, with their face-joints intact, are jarring. Then, like so much about Kaufman, once you buy in, its slyness reveals itself.

It’s 2005. Sales and marketing expect Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), author of the book “How May I Help You to Help Them?” heads to Cincinnati to give a talk to a sales conference. He checks into the Al Fregoli hotel (an in-joke that is worth saving until after you see the movie). He holds a letter from Bella, an old flame, a woman he dumped a decade ago. We hear her voice in his head….

And suddenly you realize that all the other characters have the same voice — male, female, adult or child – and they are all voiced with a total lack of affect by Tom Noonan.

Which —  for fans of his work in “Manhunter,” the extremely tense “What Happened Was…” and his part as the priest on “Louie” — is amazingly creepy.

Frankly, this is also a pretty spot-on allegory for depression — to Stone, in the throes of an existential crisis, everyone is one big drone. Even his meeting with Bella (also Noonan) goes poorly  (Bella has a little too much self-respect to fall for his self-pity crap a decade after he split on her).

But then he accidentally meets two ladies here for the conference, the blonde, flirtatious Emily and the shy, mousey, Lisa. Even with her limited education and facial scar, Michael is entranced:  Lisa’s voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is distinct.

Make no mistake: Michael, married with a kid, is not a good guy — Lisa is single, vulnerable, lonely and genuinely surprised he chooses her over Emily to come back to his room.

But Kaufman rides the line between cringe-worthy and beautiful as well as any director alive. One isn’t sure whether to burst out crying or squirm in one’s seat when a slightly drunk Lisa starts to quietly sing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in Michael’s room — either way, it’s a riveting moment. And I am no closer to figuring out if Kaufman is condescending to his characters or feels genuinely tenderly towards them than I am in any of his other films (which reminds me, it’s time for a reviewing of Kaufman’s stunning “Synecdoche, New York”).

Either way, “Anomalisa” is an exceptional work — haunting and, yes, real.

“Anomalisa” screens again 2:15 p.m. Tuesday.

 

 

Fantastic Fest 2015: “The Brand New Testament” is gleefully irreverent

Catherine Deneuve stars in "The Brand New Testament"
Catherine Deneuve stars in “The Brand New Testament”

In this clever satire, God is real and reimagined as an angry Belgian man. Played by Benoît Poelvoorde (“A Town Called Panic”), God is also not a terribly pleasant person. He spends a lot of time screaming at his wife and daughter Ea (a wonderful performance from young Pili Groyne who was also in “Two Days, One Night”), watching sports, and presiding over the world on his computer. 

When Ea gets tired of her father’s attitude, she sneaks into his office, logs on to his computer and sends every person on the planet a direct message to let them know just exactly how long they have left to live. For those lucky enough to have many years ahead of them, the message is empowering. For others, it’s a stark notification that their time is running out. After this notion wrecks havoc among the general population, Ea runs away from home at the urging of her older brother, JC, so that she can find some new apostles and use their stories to craft an addendum to “the good book.”

Director Jaco Van Dormael (“Toto The Hero,” “Mr. Nobody”) has crafted a gleefully irreverent film that is filled with legitimate laugh-out-loud moments. Van Dormael and co-writer Thomas Gunzig have filled the movie to the brim with absurdist comedy. While some may find the film’s version of God to be blasphemous, “The Brand New Testament” is surprisingly sentimental.

The entire cast is excellent, but it’s worth noting that Catherine Deneuve plays one of the new apostles. She gives a fearless performance in the film’s most ridiculous storyline wherein her character falls in love with a gigantic circus gorilla and invites him to move into her home. It provides for some really goofy sight gags (the gorilla becomes a veritable bull in a china shop once inside her home), but viewers expecting her to be the star may be disappointed to learn she doesn’t even enter the picture until almost an hour in.

“The Brand New Testament” does not currently have U.S. distribution, but has been selected as the official Belgian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars. It screens again at 5:45 p.m. on Monday. 

Fantastic Fest 2015: Owen Egerton’s “Follow” is one grim Christmas movie

Good news, Austin! Local writer, comedian and extremely busy creative person Owen Egerton’s first feature film “Follow” isn’t just “friend good,” it’s actually good.

That whoosh you hear is a sigh of relief from everyone who knows him, which is a whole lot of people in town.

"Follow"
“Follow”

Shot in Austin, (mostly in a now-demolished house in Clarksville) and based on two of Edgerton’s short stories, “Follow” takes a look at Quinn (Noah Segan) and Thana (Olivia Grace Applegate). It’s a few days before Christmas, and Quinn, a visual artist, is feeling restless. He’s tired of being in a town where nothing happens and wants to go to New York for grad school. His girlfriend has a reputation as a bit of a shut-in; his pals at the bar, including fellow bartenders Ren (Merik Tadros) and Viv (Haley Lu Richardson), who clearly has a thing for Quinn.

Thana, who has seemed a little odd from the jump, gives him a gun as an early Christmas gift. He and asks him to put it in his mouth and pull the trigger, just based on her say so.

Let’s just say things don’t go as either Quinn or Thana planned and Quinn spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out the next move, losing his mind in the process. Don Most (of “Happy Days” fame) makes a cameo as the building’s owner, local singer Southern Longoria bookends “Follow” as a young man singing Christmas carols in the neighborhood for a buck a song, and yes, since this is playing at Fantastic Fest, a dog bites it.

The tight, 74-minute psychological thriller is a stellar example of making your script fit your budget. Virtually all of the scenes take place in one house (complete with a basement, a rarity in Austin), there are a minimal number of speaking roles and Egerton himself takes a cameo as a hacked off bartender.

“Follow” screens again 8:15 p.m. Monday.