Sundance smash ‘Patti Cake$’ busts a rhyme at SXSW

“Patti Cake$.” Contributed by Jeong Park

23-year-old Patricia (newcomer Danielle Macdonald) lives in New Jersey with her mother, Barb (Bridget Everett), and ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). Her friends call her Patti. She calls herself Killa P. Local hoodlums cruelly call her Dumbo.

She drives around town in an aging Cadillac that has a personalized PATTIWGN plate and toils away tending bar at a local tavern while putting away as much money as possible to help pay down her grandmother’s medical debts. Rap music is always flowing through her headphones and car speakers, and her bedroom floor is covered in notebooks where she’s logged countless rhymes, daydreaming about being a superstar.

There’s a great moment early on in the film where Patti is sitting on the hood of her car, reaching out to the skyscrapers that are in the distance, across the water in Manhattan. They look close enough to touch, but the big city might as well be a million miles away.

Her best friend and fellow outcast, Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay), works in a local pharmacy. He’d like nothing more than for them to team up and make music together. After putting down money to buy some beats from a local producer and make a demo recording, a few puffs of potent pot send Patti running from the booth and cause a lost opportunity.

Demos finally are created with the help of Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), a metalhead with creepy contacts in his eyes who somewhat begrudgingly helps them turn into a very bizarre trio who record a handful of songs under the name PBNJ. Having tangible tunes that could help them escape their everyday lives is the first of many hurdles to climb before success is possible.

Director Geremy Jasper, himself a former indie musician, has written a story that genuinely expresses love for hip-hop and pays homage to “8 Mile” and “Hustle and Flow” in the process. Macdonald’s performance is a revelation, but the casting of foul-mouthed cabaret star Everett in the role of Patti’s mother (who herself has seen failed dreams of musical stardom) is also key to the film’s success.

Knowing very little about the movie going into it, it made sense to me that Macdonald was discovered for her hip-hop talents and the movie was created as a vehicle for her. At the post-film Q&A, I was stunned to learn that she was from Australia and had never rapped in her life before shooting the movie. Jasper found her while the movie was being developed at the Sundance labs and he believed that she could pull the character off.

His belief in her paid off in spades. Or at least to the tune of $10.5 million, which is what Fox Searchlight paid to buy the movie after its Sundance premiere in January.

You can catch the magic of “Patti Cake$” again at 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday at the Stateside. The film is expected to be released later this year.

Familial deception is at the heart of Austin-based film ‘La Barracuda’

Sinaloa (Sophie Reid) and Merle (Allison Tolman) in “La Barracuda.” Contributed by Patrick Rusk

This new thriller from Austin-based directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund (“Now, Forager”) is built around a concept that really intrigues me – people leading double lives.

Wayne Klein had a wife and daughter at home in Texas but toured all over the world and enjoyed a few extracurricular activities along the way. Over the years he harbored a big secret that comes to life after his death; he actually had fathered a child with a woman from England and would visit this second family when he was overseas playing shows. “La Barracuda” picks up with Sinaloa (Sophie Reid, “Game Of Thrones”), the secret British daughter, making the trek to the United States and showing up on the door of her half-sister Merle (an outstanding Allison Tolman from FX’s “Fargo”) in Austin.

Sinaloa is blunt and gets right to the point. She ambushes Merle and her fiancé Raul (Luis Bordonada) on their front porch when they come home one evening in the dark, revealing who she is without hesitation. It’s clear to see that it’s a painful revelation for Merle, who is hesitant to accept this information about her late father as the gospel truth. Raul insists that they put her up for the night because she is family. But how can they know if that’s true? Hearing Sinaloa singing some of Wayne’s songs goes a long way towards convincing Merle that the story could be legitimate, but it opens a Pandora’s box that changes her life forever.

As Sinaloa is introduced to extended family members at an engagement party, her presence becomes quite a point of conversation and interest. This goes double for Merle’s mother, Patricia (delightfully played by JoBeth Williams), who isn’t actually very pleasant to her own daughter, never mind the secret offspring of her late husband. A relative at the party pulls Sinaloa aside and offers to help her investigate inheritance issues if she’s so inclined, which further blurs the line about what her intentions really are.

In their original fundraising campaign for the movie, the filmmakers stated, “At its core, ‘La Barracuda’ is a story about the conflicting loyalties between mothers, daughters, and sisters.” Slowly but surely, Merle’s perfectly curated existence is thrown out of whack by Sinaloa’s antics. Memories are conjured and questioned. An already strained relationship with her mother is pushed to the limits.

I was utterly enraptured by the first act of this film, completely taken by the story, the actors, and the familiar setting. Halfway into the picture, I was unsure of where things were going but thought I was ready for anything. Despite an enormous amount of foreshadowing, the film’s final third moves towards an abrupt twist that made me flinch but feels undeserved.

In the end, “La Barracuda” really does deliver on the music. Sinaloa’s performances (including some tracks live at the Saxon Pub) are really beautiful and heartfelt. And there’s a lot of traditional Texas music and artists in the film like Colin Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and the Harvest Thieves while Codeine drummer Chris Brokaw delivers a moody score.

 

“La Barracuda” screens again at 8:30 p.m. March 17 at the Alamo South Lamar.

‘The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin’ is essential viewing

Armistead Maupin at the San Francisco Chronicle. Contributed by KQED

I’m not a gay writer. I’m a writer who happens to be gay. 

That quote, from an archival interview in the 1970s, is one of the first things we hear from Armistead Maupin in Jennifer Kroot’s new documentary about his life. It’s almost hard to imagine now how incredibly shocking it was for a voice like his to be celebrated at the time his career took off.

Raised in a highly conservative family in North Carolina, Maupin rose to fame as a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He somewhat controversially launched a serialized story called “Tales From The City” that was published by the newspaper starting in 1976. Determined to reflect the diversity of lives in the city, his characters and the situations that they found themselves in were not always exclusively heterosexual.

Blending fact and fiction, one of the installments of the series essentially served as Maupin’s own coming-out letter to his parents back home (who subscribed to the paper from afar). Kroot turns the spotlight on this piece, which Maupin himself considers to be one of his most essential, by having it read aloud in the movie by many of his friends interviewed on camera including Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney, Jonathan Groff, Sir Ian McKellan and others.

Over the years, “Tales From The City” was turned into a series of well-received novels, and the first volume was adapted into a PBS miniseries in the early 1990s (starring Linney and Dukakis) and eventually was followed up with sequels that aired on Showtime.

The film is split into chapters but doesn’t adhere to a strict chronological timeline. It jumps around to different parts of his life story, from his time as a teenage Republican to losing friends and lovers during the AIDS crisis to when he met his now-husband Christopher on a website called “Daddy Hunt.”

Such candor is par for the course with Maupin, and I appreciate his willingness to lay it all out there for the sake of history. At one point, he refers to himself as a “big romantic with a slutty side.” Not long after, he’s detailing how some of his earliest sexual encounters were actually with Rock Hudson, including once when he had a threesome with Hudson and his partner in their hotel room. But of course, that’s just one small (although unquestionably notable and, as his puts it, “dreamy”) part of his life.

This is a man who wrote about much more than the gay experience. He worked hard to place his life into the larger context of the world. His writing was groundbreaking and inspired countless people to come out of the closet.

Heartwarming. Funny. Sad. Vital. This is essential gay history. I’m thankful that this film will help preserve it and turn new generations on to his work.

“The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” screens again at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday at the Alamo South Lamar.

 

‘Walking Out’ is a bold and unexpectedly emotional tale of survival

David (Josh Wiggins) and Cal (Matt Bomer) in “Walking Out.” Contributed by Standa Honzik

Twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith were both Austin residents until somewhat recently. Alex continues to live here and teach at the University of Texas at Austin, while Andrew headed back to Montana, where they were born and where their latest film was shot.

The Smith brothers first broke out at Sundance with “The Slaughter Rule” in 2002, casting both Ryan Gosling and Amy Adams in early roles that earned them strong reviews. They’ve returned with an intense story of survival against the odds, an unexpectedly emotional journey based on a short story by David Quammen.

Cal (Matt Bomer, “Magic Mike XXL”) is a divorced father who lives in Montana. His son David (Josh Wiggins, “Hellion”) is 14 and flies in to visit for an annual hunting trip. It’s the one time of year that Cal gets to see his son and they are able to bond in big sky country, something becoming more difficult each year as David would rather play video games than trek off into the woods.

The plan for this trip is for David to kill his first moose. He’s not so sure that he’s up for the task, but relents. Family dynamics are further represented by flashback sequences where Cal is shown as a young man, out on hunting and fishing trips with his father (played by Bill Pullman). We see how this is a tradition and how happy Cal is to be able to pass this knowledge down to a son who he is not often able to connect with.

After discovering that there is an angry mama grizzly bear in their vicinity, they decide to retreat, but an accident has devastating consequences. Both father and son are forced to use their limited resources to survive.

Cinematographer Todd McMullen (“Friday Night Lights”) captures some spectacular footage in what had to have been a difficult shoot. The opening shots show the sun rising over snow-capped mountains. Stunning shots of purple and orange skies streaked with clouds above the vast mountain ranges are just plain breathtaking. The majesty of the rural location comes through in even the most difficult sequences.

Bomer and Wiggins are extraordinarily good, and the well-crafted screenplay creates a palpable tension that hangs for the last 20 minutes or so of the picture. This is independent filmmaking at its best.

“Walking Out” was recently acquired by Sundance Selects/IFC, who are expected to release it later this year.

‘Muppet Guys Talking’ is like hanging out with old friends at SXSW

From left, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson and Bill Barretta in “Muppet Guys Talking.” Contributed by 2017 Vibrant Mud LLC

Janet Pierson, the head of SXSW Film, has said that they never intentionally program the festival by theme but that frequently as the schedule comes together each year, a theme emerges. This year, it could be said that looking inside the creative process is one of the major themes that shines through.

With “Muppet Guys Talking – Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched,” Frank Oz brings us an intimate and insightful conversation between five of the original Muppet performers. Filmed in 2012 before the death of Jerry Nelson, it’s not only a fascinating historical document but also a beautiful portrait of old friends who can still crack each other up after decades together.

While they’ve all worked on various projects, this film sticks to their time on “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” for the most part. An initial montage of who played what character is pretty astonishing:

  • Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Grover, Bert, Cookie Monster, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam The Eagle)
  • Jerry Nelson (The Count, Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Mr. Snuggleupagus)
  • Fran Brill (Zoe, Little Bird, Betty Lou, Prairie Dawn)
  • Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Bunsen Honeydew, Zoot)
  • Bill Barretta (Pepe the King Pawn, Johnny Fiama, Bobo the Bear)

For anybody who has ever been an avid viewer of these shows, every passing moment of this film provides tidbits about the characters that these artists helped bring to life that you’ve probably never heard about. And while they’ve all done press and interviews separately over the years, this moment is the only time that they ever sat down with each other to reminisce and look back on their careers. It’s so heartfelt and genuine, we’re truly fortunate to be able to eavesdrop in.

One thing that comes through is the awe and respect that they all retain for their old boss and collaborator Jim Henson. At this point, he’s been gone for nearly three decades, but his influence and passion still shines through today. During the chat, Fran Brill notes: “All of our lives were changed so enormously because we met and worked with Jim. He had more effect on me and who I am than my own parents.”

“Muppet Guys Talking” screens again tonight at 6:00 p.m. at the Alamo South Lamar and at Noon on Thursday at the Paramount.

Joe Swanberg’s ‘Win It All’ won over SXSW, heads for Netflix

“Win It All.” Contributed by Mitch Buss

After toiling away for over a decade making incredibly low-budget independent films, director Joe Swanberg has fallen into a groove with Netflix that seems to suit him well.

Last year he premiered a series on the streaming service called “Easy” (which will begin shooting its second season this spring), directed a few episodes of another one of their shows (“Love”), and is now getting ready to launch his most accessible and slickly produced feature with them. And while the storyline was fully scripted out in advance this time, like in “Easy” the cast still largely improvised their dialogue.

Before the world premiere screening, Swanberg noted to festival director Janet Pierson that the movie “had to be” at the festival. His last big premiere in town was 2013’s “Drinking Buddies,” a movie that started to mark a new chapter in his career. It was a far cry from when he first debuted at SXSW in 2005 with the erotic drama “Kissing On The Mouth.”

This film is another collaboration between Swanberg and Jake Johnson. Johnson co-wrote the screenplay and also stars as Eddie Garrett, a well-intentioned man who just happens to be a gambling addict.

A friend who is about to go to jail shows up at his apartment one day and asks him to store an overstuffed duffel bag for him while he’s away. It seems to be a reasonable request but comes with the caveat that he never open the bag or worry about what is inside. Curiosity (of course) gets the better of Eddie, who later discovers that the bag is packed to the gills with cold, hard cash.

For a man who loves to gamble, this is a revelation that proves hard to resist. He decides that his new “storage business” could do him good if he just borrows $500 out of the bag to see what he can do with it. His sponsor (a hilarious Keegan-Michael Key) tries to talk him out of it, but that initially borrowed sum quickly becomes $2,148 in a card game and a spark is lit. Swanberg helps us follow the money by keeping a running tally of Eddie’s gains and losses on screen.

After Eddie loses far too much of the money, he attempts to go straight. He pleads with his brother (Joe Lo Truglio) to let him come work for the family landscaping business, something he’s apparently resisted for years. While all of this is happening, Eddie also falls in love. Mexican actress Aislinn Derbez stars in her first English-language role as Eva, a single mother who needs to ensure that things between them are really serious before introducing him to her daughter. This leads him into a bit of a double life, struggling with his desire for her and his addiction.

A surprise collect phone call from prison brings the news that Eddie doesn’t need – his pal is getting released from prison early and will be coming by in a week to retrieve his bag. It triggers a last-gasp attempt to make things right and provides for an exhilarating final act.

“Win It All” is accompanied by a truly funky soundtrack of mostly classic sounds from the Numero Group label and a percussion-heavy score by Dan Romer (“Beasts Of The Southern Wild”).

The movie only had one screening during SXSW but will premiere April 7 on Netflix.

‘Infinity Baby’ mines futuristic concept for sharply observed laughs

Kieran Culkin and Noël Wells in “Infinity Baby.” Contributed by Matthias Grunsky

Austin-based filmmaker Bob Byington is no stranger to South by Southwest. The festival screened his previous two features, 2012’s “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and 2014’s “7 Chinese Brothers.” He returned to the Zach this weekend for the world premiere of his latest film, a gleefully sardonic comedy sharply observed in black-and-white across our fair city.

This time around, Byington is working from another writer’s script (“Catfight” director Onur Tukel), but it’s easy to see how the tone and humor are closely aligned with his previous efforts. Frequent collaborators Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Kevin Corrigan, Martin Starr and Stephen Root are all on hand and collectively create a deliriously large number of laugh-out-loud moments.

In the not too distant future, Ben (Kieran Culkan) is working for Infinity Baby, a company founded by his uncle (Offerman) to unload an overabundance of genetically modified babies who are unable to age.

These babies sleep a lot, rarely cry and, thanks to a regimented cycle of pills, only need to have their diapers changed once a week. Ben has a new girlfriend only slightly more frequently, choosing to utilize a convoluted plot to dump them and move on to the next woman.

These far-fetched story elements combine to craft a legitimately hysterical film that manages to be satirical but relatable in its comedy. If the tone were different, some of the gags could border on mean-spirited (as when one character blinds his boyfriend after spraying him in the face repeatedly with cleaning solution), but here they read more as absurd than actually cruel.

The laughs are punctuated by outstanding hip-hop beats courtesy of Aesop Rock, one of the more unique musical scores I’ve heard of late. To top it all off, the end credits are accompanied by the Sugarcubes’ classic track “Delicious Demon.” While I’m not sure if that is supposed to be a commentary on these unnatural (but adorable) babies, I can’t help but feel like Björk and Einar would approve.

A buzz screening of “Infinity Baby” has been added at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Alamo South Lamar. You also can catch it at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Stateside Theatre.

 

SXSW Film: “Sylvio” graduates from Vine to the big screen

“Sylvio.” Contributed by Eric LaPlante

The character of Sylvio, an “ordinary gorilla,” originally launched on Vine. By the time the 6-second video service shut down last year, the account had over half a million followers and gained almost 115 million loops.

Co-directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley expanded Sylvio’s world into a feature-length film thanks to a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $50,000. It sounds cliché to say you’ve never seen anything like it, but I assure you that in this case, it’s true.

The movie exists in a highly stylized and surreal world where it’s totally normal for a gorilla to work in a debt collection office. A lack of success collecting those debts for the company over the phone finds Sylvio getting assigned to “house visits” to try and get money back for his employer. He ends up at the home of Al Reynolds (Audley), a jovial man who inexplicably hosts “the only 5 day-a-week afternoon show in Baltimore.”

Yes, there’s a full television studio in Al’s basement and a small crew works on his daily variety show. When Sylvio shows up, he is mistaken for a guest on the show: Terrence The Mystery Juggler. As far as live television goes, it’s a disaster, but the home audience loves him. They bombard the phone lines asking when he’s going to be on the show again. Sylvio eventually becomes an essential part of the show, thanks in large part to his hit segment, “What’s The Ape Gonna Break Next?”

“Sylvio” is highlighted by a lovely score from Thomas Hughes and Gretchen Lohse, better known as the dreamy Philadelphia-based duo Carol Cleveland Sings. Nick Krill, who was in The Spinto Band with Hughes and currently plays in a band called Teen Men with Birney, also contributes music to the film.  Several past and present bandmates pop up in audience shots on “The Afternoon Show” as well.

It’s a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of Birney and Audley that this quirky low-budget comedy is able to break through and resonate. Sylvio barely has dialogue in the film but he’s incredibly expressive. There’s no question that it’s all a bit weird, but there’s a marvelous sense of wonder in every scene that finds you rooting for this ordinary agorilla to see his dreams come true.

You can catch “Sylvio” again at 7 p.m. on Monday and 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, both screenings at the Alamo South Lamar.

Melanie Lynskey talks bad auditions and how a sitcom helped her stay indie during SXSW chat

Melanie Lynskey interviewed by director Megan Griffiths during SXSW. Photo by Matt Shiverdecker.

I was a senior in high school when Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” rolled into my local art house theater in 1994. My friends and I were thrilled by the story of one of the most infamous murder cases in New Zealand’s history. We saw it over and over again and I knew that we’d be seeing a lot more of the lead actresses in the film – Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey.

Earlier today, Seattle-based director Megan Griffiths (who recently directed Lynskey in a film called “Sadie”) sat down with Lynskey at SXSW for a revealing chat sponsored by SAG-AFTRA. She discussed everything from her first acting role (in a play at age 6) to the way she’s been able to manage an eclectic career in independent cinema while getting paid from a big television gig.

Here are a few great moments from their conversation.

Life was weird after “Heavenly Creatures”: “I stayed in New Zealand. I had two more years of high school, so it was very strange. I literally was living my dream and had the most incredible experience. I’d been telling everyone that I wanted to be an actor and they said, “you have to choose a different job. That’s not a real job.” And then I went off and did it. It was sort of a weird thing of coming back and everyone was like ‘that was fun, good for you’ and now get on with life as though it didn’t happen.”

She’s pretty confident about picking the right roles: “I learned that I operate very much from instinct. It has to come from somewhere that’s very truthful inside of me…”

She’s had some horrifying auditions: “One time, they were making a movie about Janis Joplin. It was years ago and I read the script and I just was like…’Janis Joplin is a step too far.’ I just knew instinctively that it was not for me. I was reading the signs…I can’t do it. But I got talked into it. And later I heard that Rachel Griffiths, an amazing actress had gotten a movie because someone had seen the videotape of her audition for Janis Joplin and she was so great and she had gotten a movie from it. And I was like ‘those tapes are out there.’ It scared me so badly. That the casting director was just like showing the tapes to people.”

Acting on a network sitcom allowed her to keep the rest of her career choices pretty indie: “‘Two and a Half Men’ was like a whole other thing. I did it because it was pilot season and there was a guest-starring role in a sitcom and I was like ‘what’s a sitcom like? That’s interesting. I want to try that.’ And then I became a regular for a couple of years and then after that I got to come and go from the show, which I am so grateful for. I don’t know how people make a living doing independent films. I had this job. I wasn’t getting rich from it…but…I could pay my bills. And I was able to build an interesting independent film career because I had this secret job…that a lot of people didn’t even know I was on…I’m so grateful to the creators of that show.”

The best director she’s ever worked with: “My favorite director I think is probably Steven Soderbergh [Lynskey appeared in his 2009 film “The Informant!”]. He was so great. He wanted it to be so loose and so free. There was a real sense of fun and adventure and just trying stuff that I got addicted to very quickly on that set.”

Melanie Lynskey’s most recent projects include a short film by indie rocker St. Vincent in the female horror anthology “XX” (available now on VOD) and Macon Blair’s Sundance award-winning thriller “I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore” (streaming now on Netflix).

SXSW Film: “The Transfiguration” is a refreshingly original take on vampire lore

Eric Ruffin as Milo in “The Transfiguration.” Contributed by Sung Rae Cho

Michael O’Shea’s directorial debut manages to deliver a story that effortlessly floats between the life of a troubled loner and accepted cinematic vampire mythology. Milo (Eric Ruffin, “The Good Wife”) fully encompasses both tropes.

In the opening scene, it appears as though we are closing in on the stall of a bathroom where two men are having a sexual encounter. The camera pans from a shocked man across the room down into the action, where it is revealed that the situation is far from erotic. Milo is on his knees, but he’s sucking copious amounts of blood spurting from the neck of a severely injured man.

Milo is a loner who wanders around the city, always returning to the safety of his bedroom where he has stacks of VHS tapes scrawled with the titles of vampire movies. From classics like “Dracula” to mid-1990s independent films like “Nadja,” they’re all part of his studies. He is trying to determine what the “rules” are for people like him and stashing away money from his victims.

He lives with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Moten) in the housing projects of Queens. Both their parents have died, and they can only depend on each other. But Lewis spends most of his time passed out in front of the television, avoiding his former gang-related friends outside the apartment doors.

A young woman named Sophie (Chloe Levine) moves into the apartment building to live with her grandfather. Also an orphan, she quickly forms a bond with Milo, unaware of his secrets. Their burgeoning friendship blossoms into romance and, at least temporarily, it appears as though Milo’s affliction may take a backseat to a love story.

The casting of this film is spot-on, and the technical aspects continue to dazzle. Sung Rae Cho’s cinematography offers vibrant shots of life in a big city while also serving up intimate, shadow-filled moments. Margaret Chardiet’s rumbling score helps to telegraph Milo’s most vulnerable and violent instincts. When the surround speakers begin to shake, there’s trouble around the corner.

We’ve had plenty of teenage vampire love stories in recent years, but “The Transfiguration” gives us a melancholy and refreshingly original twist.

It plays again at 9:45 p.m. on Monday and at 2:15 p.m. on Friday, both screenings at the Alamo Ritz. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is out next month in New York and Los Angeles thanks to the independent mavericks at Strand Releasing.