Austin Film Festival 2015: Review of ‘Miss You Already’

missyouFriendship gets harder over time. The early years of first shared secrets, sexual escapades, boozy nights on the town, road trips and exploration make for fun, if not frivolous times. But when taller hurdles start appearing and life gets complicated, so do relationships. Those challenging times can strain friendships, and they can also make them stronger.

This is what Milly (Toni Collette) and Jess (Drew Barrymore) come to learn in “Miss You Already,” director and University of Texas alumnus Catherine Hardwicke’s “Beaches”-esque tale of friendship, perseverance and love, mostly in times of duress. The nascent friendship and salad days of the two ladies’ friendship is told in simplistic flashback with voiceover. The cheap device initially gives the sense that the movie will paint by numbers in a tiring fashion. But 10 minutes in, after we get the background of ex-pat Jess and English best friend Milly, the stakes get raised and Hardiwcke, who has explored teens angst before (artfully in “Thirteen” and commercially in “Twilight”) brings unexpected visual dynamism to a rather predictable.

A breast cancer diagnosis throws cold water on the heated and humming life of Milly, a fun-loving music PR exec. The kinetic camera pulls in tight on Milly’s somber reaction, and moves around her and husband Kit’s (Dominic Cooper) hip London flat giving the sense of the familial whirlwind that does not abate just because cancer has intruded.

Jess is facing another 30-something crisis, trying in vain to start a family with her gently dutiful but strapping husband Jago (Paddy Considine). As Jess, a tree-hugging and joyfully earnest woman (right in the Barrymore wheelhouse), navigates the fears and anxieties surrounding her own life, she must balance caring for her longtime friend.

Milly doesn’t make it easy work. Rightfully scared by her diagnosis and the prospect of an exuberant life muted by illness, Milly acts out at her friends and family, eventually becoming what Jess labels a “cancer bully.” Milly’s ultimate lashing out manifests itself in an affair that strains her marriage and her friendship.

Hardwicke’s unsteady camera and tight close-ups give the film the unsettled feeling that invades the lives of the terminally ill and those they love, and the visually honest film bravely explores the physical toll cancer and intense treatment takes on those stricken with the illness. But the movie alternates between the clinical and unearned emotion. The second act, which arrives abruptly, is a step-by-step instructional video of what happens when someone gets cancer.

When the tensions mount between friends, it’s hard to feel the urgency or vitality of the conflict because screenwriter Morwenna Banks’ script never truly establishes the individual characters or the complexities of the relationships. The lives don’t feel lived in, and even the comedic scenes feel like added set pieces intended to liven up the story. And just as the relationships begin to have a sense of truth and profundity, the film undercuts the drama with silly rom-com contrivances like a man using a sketchy Internet connection to watch his lonely wife give birth.

“Miss You Already” pulls at the heartstrings, but it’s sometimes hard to believe the faith in the effort. Collette deflates from fierce to feeble with noble grace, and Hardwicke does her best to bring intensity to one of life’s all-too-familiar arduous battles, but the movie falls just short of pulling you fully into its emotional fray.

Austin Film Festival 2015: Short Form Storytelling

Evan Bregman
Evan Bregman

Short Form Storytelling
12:30 p.m. Saturday, Driskill Hotel, Crystal Room

Panelists: Evan Bregman, Head of Original Content, Portal A; Rodrigo Garcia, writer/director of “Last Days in the Desert,” “Mother and Child” and “Nine Lives”; director of “Albert Nobbs”; executive producer of “In Treatment.” Julie Howe, executive producer/writer/co-creator of “The Adventures of Catty Wompus.” Craig Comstock, co-creator/producer/director of “The Adventures of Catty Wompus.”

Moderator: Linnea Toney

In short: The moderator and panelists discussed short form story-telling, specifically as it relates to web series and other forms of online distribution. Discussions included defining the term, distribution, project selection, ancillary efforts, finding an audience, and how to achieve growth and longevity. Panelists talked about short-form projects they’re working on including children’s series, reality programming and Spanish language efforts.

Highlights: The panelists agreed that “short-form” is kind of a loose term — content should be as short or long as necessary in order to be entertaining. There are so many outlets for distribution now that creators should focus on content first, then paper the distribution landscape and see what sticks. Howe noted that having a potential revenue stream in terms of ancillary product licensing, etc. could make a project more appealing to distributors.

Garcia contends that it is a great time to be creating quality content, since there is so much out there but “most content is still bad.” There is a voracious appetite, he said, for quality content.

In terms of choosing which content to produce, Bregman said there is no substitute for “having an idea that prevents you from sleeping because you can’t stop thinking about it.” He called the Internet the world’s largest research group and testing ground. Comparing Internet creation content to adding something to a game, he said content producers should “try to think how we can tap into interaction already happening between people.”

Garcia said that, generally, money has to be spent to fins an audience, mocking the mentality that says, “Go make me a viral video.” He pointed out that we are beginning to see billboards advertising YouTube, “which sounds so 19th century.” Bergman agreed that online outlets are starting to realize power and necessity of tradition advertising. he noted that Netflix erected a massive, 10-story picture of “House of Cards” character Frank Underwood sitting like Lincoln right in the heart of Hollywood.

As far as getting viewers for independent projects, the panelists suggested that it’s mostly a matter of hustle: knocking on doors; emailing everyone you know; posting on every blog you can think of; and asking your friends, your parents, and your friends’ parents do the same.

Quotes: “Stay grounded, keep focused, work hard. Everything happens for a reason.” — Comstock

“People don’t take short form content seriously enough when they are writing it.” — Garcia

“Put a link that says ‘if you do not click, we will unleash a virus on this computer.’ ” — Howe

“At end of day, make great big show you’re proud of that says something.” — Bregman

“Naked underwater basketweaving enthusiasts — they’re on internet and gathering around a shared passion.” — Bregman

Austin Film Festival 2015: A Conversation with the 2015 Awardees

rbz Texas Bookfest Day2 11AFF director Barbara Morgan joined actor Chris Cooper, writer/director Brian Helgeland, extremely old and still vibrant TV producer Norman Lear, and writer/director John Singleton in a free ranging discussion about their careers Saturday morning in the Stephen F. Austin Ballroom.

Here are some highlights:

Norman Lear started his career intending to be a press agent, but he and an aspiring-writer pal cranked out a “piece of materia” and sold it. “We got 40 bucks,” Lear said. He was making $60 a week at the time. After that, “We started to write every night.” Even though there were plenty of radio writers who had more experience with dramatic form than Lear did, in the very early days of television. Lear was as much as TV writer as they were.

John Singleton noted that his first project as a director, a music video, involved him doing absolutely everything except being director of photography. “I was smart enough to get a DP,” he said. And then he forgot to bring film to the shoot (he was close to a Kodak store in L.A. and got some). It taught him “you cannot do everything on your own, You have to have a great crew and a good infrastructure and you have to have film.” (Also, he is a big fan of the TV show “The Knick.”)

Helgeland told a fantastic story about being represented by an agency so small you had to bring the agent 20 copies of your script. He wrote six or so on spec, none of them sold and then the agent asked him to remove all of these scripts from the office as they were taking up space. Helgeland dumped them into the back of his pickup and drove off: “I felt like I was trying to get orphans out of some war zone.” The seventh one he sold.

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

Cooper noted that John Sayles, with whom he has made several films, has very strong politics, ” but he doesn’t preach. At the end of hot he film he is gonna leave you with a conversation. He just wakes you up.”

Singleton said that after the success of “Boyz in the Hood,” he just locked himself in his house and studied old movies. “I went back to film school,” he said. ” I would read a biography of a filmmaker, then watch all their films and start thinking about what worked and what didn’t. I wanted to open up myself to everything.” He was also a big movie nerd as a kid, watching shows such as “the Million Dollar Movie” on L.A. TV. “As a kid, Barbara Stanwyck was my favorite actress.”

He also said that the producer helping him on “Boyz” made a very wise choice when he decided to schedule the movie in continuity. “You can see me get better and more comfortable in directing as the movie goes on,” he said.

Cooper said he runs on fear. “I make sure I am prepared., that I have put my time in.” When he made “August: Osage County”  they were able to shoot an 18 page dinner scene in three days because he and the cast simply rehearsed it every single night at dinner. “We ran the hell out of those lines.”

Lear said his biggest failure was not creating a series for Nancy Walker, whom he called one of the funniest people he’d ever met. “I didn’t do the job I needed to do and it broke my heart.”

Lear still hasn’t found a studio willing to make his sitcom for senior citizens, blessed with the amazing title “Guess Who Died?” (a dramatic reading of the pilot script took place Saturday afternoon).

Singleton’s next project (hopefully) is a series called “Snowfall” for FX about how cocaine (pre-crack) changed Los Angeles in the early 1980s.

Cooper would love to make a mini-series about the career of Frank Lloyd Wright and Helgeland said he would love to make a movie about a fishing family, the sort of family from which he comes. “It’s the thing I know the best and I can’t get it going,” Helgeland said, “I don’t really like to think of what that means.”

Austin Film Festival 2015: ‘Mully’ is a standout documentary

Scott Haze, director of "Mully."
Scott Haze, director of “Mully.”

Actor, director and playwright Scott Haze, who grew up in Austin, returns to town on Sunday for the premiere of his new documentary, “Mully,” and it’s an amazing story.

Charles Mully was abandoned by his parents at the age of 6 in a rural area of Kenya, supposedly in the custody of his uncle but actually with no help at all. So he made his way to the capital of Nairobi, where he became a child of the slums, a beggar, albeit a bright one.

After years on the streets, he began to get an idea. He could start a business to get people from one part of town to the other. And eventually he earned enough money to buy a vehicle, then another, then another, and after years of work, he became a prosperous businessman.

But his life took a dramatic turn one day when he parked his car and was accosted by beggars. He refused to help them and told them to get a job. And when he came back to his parking spot, the car was gone. And he began to think: Why had he turned them down? Why did he not try to help them rather than dismiss them as beggars, when he had been one, too. He saw something in one of the young men’s eyes, and he was haunted.

So after much contemplation, he made a decision that most people thought was crazy. He was going to sell off everything that he had built up. And he was going to use the proceeds to try to save some of the thousands of abandoned children in Nairobi, one by one.

His family, which included a wife and several children by this point, was not amused. They were accustomed to a comfortable life. And they saw their home becoming a big dormitory for children that Mully brought home. But Mully persisted, and today, he runs a huge children’s home that’s self-sustaining, and 10,000 young Kenyans call him dad. He gives the kids a safe home, sends them to school and turns their lives around, doing what no one ever did for him.

There’s a strong religious overtone to this, with multiple references to God, but there’s no clear religious affiliation. Mully simply has faith that charity is his duty.

Haze found out about Mully’s story a couple of years ago, through executive producer John Bardis, who had seen footage of the still-in-the-works documentary “Ghost & Goblins,” which focuses on the life of former Olympic wrestler Lee Kemp. Haze says he was amazed by the story and met Mully in San Jose, Calif., for a day, where the two spent hours talking. Mully decided that Haze would be a good candidate to tell his story, and Haze and his team went to Kenya over the holidays two years ago. They would return again to film more footage, and the result is going to be seen on the big screen Sunday.

Although best known as an actor and an associate of James Franco in adaptations of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy novels, Haze has a knack for directing.

To tell the story of Mully as a child, Haze uses a young actor to portray the subject through re-enactments. And while Haze says he normally wouldn’t do re-enactments, he wanted to follow the advice of Tupac, to “make people feel you before they hear you.” And he wanted people to see how Mully felt when being abandoned, and the profound effect that had on his life, just as it has had on thousands of abandoned children in Kenya.

The rest of the documentary, remarkably, features interviews with Mully’s parents, who left him many years ago and are still rationalizing their actions, as well as the initially bewildered members of Mully’s immediate family.

Haze says he’s glad to be having the premiere in Austin, since he considers it his second home, although he spends most of his time in Los Angeles, pursuing numerous theater and film projects. He attended Austin Community College before leaving for acting school in Los Angeles. And his roommate in Austin was Jim Parrack, the actor and director who played Hoyt Fortenberry on HBO’s “True Blood.”

Mully has its premiere at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Paramount Theatre. It’s worth your time.

Austin Film Festival 2015: X, Y, and Why — Writing Gender and Sexuality

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Moderator Bethany Johnson, left, with Jack Burditt, Kathy Greenberg and Rodrigo Garcia — Dale Roe, Austin American-Statesman

X, Y, and Why — Writing Gender and Sexuality
10:45 a.m. Saturday, The Omni Hotel, Capital Ballroom

Panelists: Jack Burditt, creator of “Last Man Standing”; writer/executive producer of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “The Mindy Project” and “30 Rock”; writer/co-producer of “Frasier.” Kathy Greenberg, co-creator of “The L Word”; writer of “Ratatouille” and “Gnomeo & Juliet.” Rodrigo Garcia, writer/director of “Last Days in the Desert,” “Mother and Child,” “Nine Lives”; director of “Albert Nobbs”; executive producer of “In Treatment.”

Moderator: Bethany Johnson

In short: The panelists discussed their experiences writing for characters of different genders and sexual identities. They talked about their influences, boundary-pushing, dealing with criticism, and their current/next projects.

Highlights: Panelists’ influences ranged from the films of Akira Kurosawa to “Get Smart.” They noted that there is not a lot of boundary pushing in network television, with Burrito noting that “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” his Netflix series, was written for NBC and the outlet shift was not made until the final episode was filming. This led to a discussion with co-creator Tina Fey about whether or not to push more boundaries in the upcoming second season with the ultimate decision that the tone should stay largely the same.

Garcia noted that, working in cable, he’d rarely run into efforts to censor his work. In fact, cable encourages creators to push boundaries.

In terms of difficulties writing for characters of different genders, ethnicities and sexual identity, it was noted that having a diverse staff helps. There is a line between relying on (and poking fun at) stereotypes and avoiding them, Greenberg says she tries to write the truth according to the character and to be honest about it.

Panelists discussed how they deal with criticism. “I cry a lot before bedtime,” Garcia said. Greenberg admitted that “The L Word” got heat for not representing everybody, but explained that the show was about a subculture of a subculture. “You can’t be everything to everybody and we had to own that,” she said. Burditt noted that “Kimmy Schmidt” was criticized for not exploring the dating life of gay character Titus Andronicus. He said the first season was always meant to explore the journey of the lead character, Kimmy, and that plans were to expand the other characters in subsequent seasons. he seemed perturbed that online complainers would think the upcoming focus on the Titus character was a result of those complaints.

Garcia said that he has written domestic servant and imprisoned characters that are Hispanic.

“I live in LA,” he explained. “I go to prisons and practically everyone in there is Latino or black. The housekeepers are Latina. I think what’s offensive is to think that all housekeepers are the same, but not if you imbue that person with her own qualities. I think it would be offensive to not admit that most domestic workers in LA are Latina.

Quotes: “I write a lot of female characters. I’m not a woman, so I have no idea what women are really like, but I have a sense in my own imagination of what the women I write might be like. How could she be like me? The fact that she’s a woman could not make her completely unlike me. I know when writing that eventually an actress will read it, so I know I will have to eventually pass that bar, especially with the sexual stuff. I call it ‘leave your (expletive) at the door writing.’ ” — Garcia

“Guys are just basically dumb and stupid, which is why I write female characters.” — Burditt

“Writing women takes me somewhere. Going into the heads of female characters is very exotic. It takes me super far away.” — Garcia

Austin Film Festival 2015: Changes and cancellations

The storm has wrecked havoc with various panels and interviews at this year’s Austin Film Festival. Here is the list of current changes:

The following panels have been cancelled:

The Directing Workshop with Catherine Hardwicke

A Conversation with Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter

The Script-to-Screen of Black Swan

Tampering with Temporal Elements

Dual Protagonists and The Writer/Director Relationship: Empire

Panelist Cancellations:

Andrea Berloff, David Boxerbaum, Noah Hawley, Mark Johnson, Barry Josephson, Simon Kinberg, Jenny Lumet, Joe Pokaski, Tiffany Paulsen, John Ridley, Seth Grahame-Smith, Rawson Thurber, Ric Roman Waugh, Mark Heyman, Malcolm Spellman, Nichelle Tramble, Catherine Hardwicke

Panel Cancellations:

Great Adaptations, A Conversation with Simon Kinberg, Producers

*All speakers and events are based on permitting schedules and are subject to change and/or cancellation without notice.

TODAY’S PANEL DATE CHANGES:
Independent Filmmaking: Directing Your Own Script | Moved to Friday, 10/30, from 1:30PM-2:45PM in the SFA Assembly Room

Young Filmmakers Panel: Imagination Never Gets “Old” | Moved to Saturday, 10/31, from 10:45AM-12:00PM in the Driskill Victorian Balcony

Structurally Sound | Moved to Saturday, 10/31, from 12:30PM-1:45PM in the Omni Hotel Ballroom

Have Pen, Will Travel | Moved to Saturday, 10/31, from 2:45PM-4:00PM in the Driskill Maximilian Room

Independent Filmmaking: Storytelling through Editing | Moved to Saturday, 10/31, from 4:30PM-5:45PM in the SFA Assembly Room

LOCATION CHANGES:

Script-to-Screen: Dracula | Moved to the Driskill Ballroom (10:45AM-12:00PM)

A Conversation with Charles Burnett | Moved to Maximilian Room (10:45AM-12:00PM)

Story Driven Action | Moved to SFA Ballroom (12:30PM-1:45PM)

Second Rounders and Above Panel: Demystifying the Development Process | Moved to SFA Assembly Room (12:30PM-1:45PM)

Structurally Sound | Moved to Omni Hotel Ballroom (12:30PM-1:45PM)

Independent Filmmaking: Crowdfunding to Build Independence | Moved to Driskill Cystal Room (4:30PM-5:45PM)
UPCOMING PANEL DATE CHANGES:

Young Filmmakers Panel: Imagination Never Gets “Old” | Moved to Saturday, 10/31, from 10:45AM-12:00PM in the Driskill Victorian Balcony

Script-to-Screen: Black Beauty | New! Sunday, 11/1, from 11:00AM-12:45PM in the Driskill Ballroom

Creating and Sustaining a Kick-Ass Writer’s Group | Moved to Sunday, 11/1, from 11:30AM-12:45PM in the Driskill Crystal Room

A Conversation with Angelo Pizzo | Moved to Sunday, 11/1, from 1:15PM-2:30PM in the Driskill Maximilian Room

Building Worlds: The Development Side | Moved to Sunday, 11/1, from 1:15PM-2:30PM in the Driskill Citadel Room

Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great with Michael Arndt | Moved to Sunday, 11/1, from 1:15PM-3:45PM in the SFA Ballroom

PANEL ADDITIONS

A Conversation with Daniel Alfredson | New! Saturday, 10/31, from 2:45PM-4:00PM in St. David’s Bethell Hall

Texas Mavericks | New! Saturday, 10/31, from 4:30PM-5:45PM in St. David’s Church Bethell Hall

Script-to-Screen: Black Beauty | New! Sunday, 11/1, from 11:00AM-12:45PM in the Driskill Ballroom

 

Austin Film Festival 2015: “Sympathy for the Devil” answers the question “What is the Process?”

If they have heard of it at all, most Americans know the The Process Church Of The Final Judgement (or the Process Church) as this obscure cult Charles Manson was kind of into.

As director Neil Edwards’ wildly entertaining (especially if you have a weakness for stories of ’60s subculture) documentary “‘Sympathy For The Devil – The True Story Of The Process Church Of The Final Judgement” points out, that was both a very small part of the story and the tail end of it.

Edwards sets the stage nicely: In the beginning, there was World War II; as one observer points out “We really didn’t win the war; America won the war.”

On some level, Britain was still struggling with this fact 20 years on when two breakaway Scientologists, a charismatic, Jesus-looking fellow named  Robert DeGrimston and his less visible but probably smarter partner Mary Ann MacLean (who may have been a hooker from Glasgow) set up something called The Process Church Of The Final Judgement in London in the mid-60s. Edwards has interviews with neither, as they are both dead,

"Sympathy for the Devil"
“Sympathy for the Devil”

With stark black clothing that stood out in the mod rainbow of Swinging London and sporting a mix of post- Scientology brainwashing techniques (group criticism) and a sort of modern Gnostic, fallen-world spiritualism (the pantheon was Jehovah, Lucifer and Satan, with Christ as an emissary for all three) the Process seemed to exist (at first) mostly to separate rich, landed Brits from their money.

Another big fan: American musician/Parliament-Funkadelic czar George Clinton, whose druggy, freedom-loving sense of the bizarre meshed nicely with Process propaganda.

The Process also had a brilliant sense of graphic design and marketing: their symbols were just close enough to swastikas to make people a little nervous, their still-amazing-looking magazine was filled with editorial/absurdist cartoons constantly asking “What is the Process?” cartoons that Edwards animates with Monty Python-esque flair. It was the sort of nonsense with a spine that proved a massive influence on the young Brits such as industrial music pioneer Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.

But as sometimes happens with cults (or religions of any sort), the hardcore sought to separate themselves from the dabblers  and a bunch of them headed for Nassau, then the coast of Mexico, in 1966. “The only way to enjoy hard things is to throw yourself completely into them,” one member puts it; making a spiritual colony from the ground-up is pretty hard and it was an extraordinarily intense time, especially when they barely survive Hurricane Inez after it veered off course (a stroke of luck for which they took credit — let’s hear it for meditation!)

Upon returning to London, Like the Source Church in California, the Process even opened a restaurant (not nearly as successful as the Source’s) and flourished for a bit, the mixture of sincerity and nonsense proving a potent mix for young Brits looking for something cool to believe in.

Like many rock bands that make it big in England and think it’s time to conquer America, things began to go slightly south after landing in the States.

Initially, it was a revelation. A place like New Orleans was freak-tolerant in a way that London could never be. But Manson’s endorsement ruined everything: He was not a cool bad guy but an actual terrible person, and the Tate-LaBianca murders were the first time anyone had heard of the church. By 1974, it was over. The founders had divorced, the Process in tatters.

What’s fascinating is that we’re only talking about a period of 10 or so years at the absolute most — those really were different times.  Edwards lays all this out via talking head interviews with former members mixed with archival footage and the aforementioned animations. It would have been nice to hear a tiny bit more from Genesis and Clinton, both of whom clearly loved their time involved in the Church.

Nevertheless, “Sympathy” viewing for anyone interested in  English-speaking underground culture.

“Sympathy” plays again 7:30 p.m. Oct. 31 at the Hideout Theater.

Austin Film Festival 2015: ‘The Lion’s Path’ super-creepy, but rewarding

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The following was written by Wes Eichenwald, special to the American-Statesman

“Super-creepy and insular, but ultimately rewarding if you’re willing to stick it out” could be a Twitter-ready capsule review of this brief (78 minutes) French Canadian effort. Alex (Frédéric Lemay), an aimless young college dropout, travels with his new girlfriend Jade to an isolated farmhouse where she lives with six other equally young and aimless people with no visible means of support, a professor named Gabriel (Sébastien Delorme) who’s vaguely into Nietzsche, and Gabriel’s young and very blonde wife, Martine (Katrine Duhaime). Needing to find a place where he belongs, or thinks he could, Alex decides to stick around, over Gabriel’s initial objections.

Gabriel is soon revealed to be a therapist/guru/budding cult leader whose stated mission is to run a “laboratory of truth” in which everyone is expected to participate in group and individual “sessions” filled with head games and other-parts-of-the-body games designed to push everyone’s buttons and boundaries (the audience included). Alex’s buttons get pushed especially strongly. Outwardly laid back, the place is a 1970s-style commune from hell.

“The Lion’s Path” resembles a filmed play in scope and structure; at least the picturesque outdoor scenes provide welcome relief from the indoor psychodrama (though some outdoor psychodrama also goes on). Although its first half is full of pretentious dialogue recalling everyone’s worst stereotypes of what French art films are supposed to be like, and certain scenes veer between creepy and tedious so much that vertigo is induced, the ending redeems the lengthy buildup and Alex’s not-so-excellent adventure is satisfyingly rounded out and tied up with a neat bow.

As Alex, Lemay resembles a francophone Michael J. Fox with absolutely no sense of humor, but within the film’s context, he’s a good casting choice. As Gabriel, Delorme looks like he’s only a few years older than his “students,” but brings an appropriately sinister-yet-impenetrable charisma to the role.

In French, with English subtitles.

Austin Film Festival 2015: “Until 20”

maxresdefaultIn 2006, when a talented junior tennis player named James Ragan was 13, the Corpus Christi native was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. He beat it. A few years later, it came back with a vengeance, five tumors in his chest.  He continued to fight it. He died Feb. 17, 2014. The Rice junior was 20 years old.

In those seven years, as Gerlandine Moriba-Meadows and Jamila Paksima’s documentary “Until 20” demonstrates, Regan lived a legitimately extraordinary life. He put together a foundation, Triumph Over Kids Cancer, that his sister till runs today. He inspired his doctors, nurses and peers. And, oh yeah, he essentially walked on to the Rice golf team after taking up the sport in his late teens after having to give up tennis. (Not only, as the documentary notes, did he shoot a 95 his very first time playing, he once played in a tournament while wearing a  portable chemo pack, which is one of the most insanely tough things I have ever heard.)

So, this is the the story of an activist and athlete, of a brother and a son. Diagnosed during a tennis tournament in Europe, he eventually had to drop the sport, only to pick up golf. This proved its own kind of inspiration. As he notes, “I guess it was Walter Hagan who once said that you can hit 3 bad shots and one good shot and still make par.  I think that’s a little bit how my life goes. It doesn’t have to be perfect, you just got to fight hard and find a way to get it done.”

Even more impressive, Ragan became a vigorous anti-cancer activist: “I’m working so my disease stops with me,” he says, which is one of the best summaries of such activism you are likely to encounter.

At every turn, Ragan seemed like a guy who was going to make the most of his time left, which he did extraordinarily well. But everyone knows it is borrowed time, and the film’s darkest moment comes when Ragan decides not to continue treatment when faces with about six decent months left. It is difficult to see Ragan’s skin become mottled and his voice rougher.

“The closer you get to death, the more you want to live,” Ragan says. He deserved more life, both for him and for us.

Austin Film Festival 2015: ‘Booger Red’ explores Texas child-sex ring claims

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The following was written by Jane Sumner, special to the American-Statesman

One week after its world premiere at the American Film Festival in Warsaw, Poland, “Booger Red,” written and directed by Emmy winner Berndt Mader, comes to the Austin Film Festival for its North American premiere.

In 2009, an enterprising reporter named Michael Hall had a story in Texas Monthly about a swingers club in Mineola that, according to the Smith County district attorney, was the scene of “the most horrific child sex ring” in the history of the state.

Eventually, seven people were sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the heinous operation. Trouble was, as Hall wrote in his astonishing “Across the Line,” the DA in Wood County, where the swingers club was located, said no such thing happened there.

Austin-based filmmaker Berndt Mader (“Five Time Champion“) knows a good story when he reads it, especially one that calls out for justice. The result is “Booger Red,” a unique telling of a Texas reporter’s dogged search for the truth about a purported child sex ring in Smith County.

From 2005 to 2008, four Tyler kids, aged four to seven, alleged that seven adults forced them to learn sexy behavior at a trailer park “kindergarten,” then perform live sex shows on stage at a Mineola swingers club.

The youngsters, who at first denied knowledge of such goings-on, later floated weird tales of witches, chicken killings and flying around on a broom. Wood County investigated. So did the FBI. No evidence was ever found to corroborate the children’s claims. Then Smith County got involved, arrests were made, citizens were upset, trials were held and seven folks were led away for life.

Inspired by films like Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close Up” and Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” which combined documentary and narrative techniques, “Booger Red” opens with a visit to Dennis Pittman, the only one of the seven accused still in prison.

From there, the docudrama follows a fictitious reporter (Onur Tukel), modeled on the actor himself, as he travels with his brother’s widow (Serbian-born actress Marija Karan) to East Texas, where he interviews local folks involved in the case.

Tukel’s character is a funny huggy-bear with a great thirst and a nose for blow as well as news. He keeps telling his bright sister-in-law, who gets bored and begins doing her own sleuthing, that she’s no journalist. He’s wrong.

Kudos to the young actors playing the kids. They’re wary, distant and believable. And as good as Tukel, Karan and Alex Karpovsky as the reporter’s editor are, it’s the real people – the defendants like Patrick Kelly aka Booger Red and the lawyers like Bobby Mims — who give this film its beating heart.

Shot in East Texas by director of photography Jimmy Lee Phelan and edited by Sam Douglas, “Booger Red” does what the filmmakers intended: It gives the victims of what Mims calls a ”pure old Texas frame-up” a chance to tell their story.