Austin Film Festival 2015: “The Program” frustrates

After an Austin Film Festival week of some excellent films, some good one and some that recalled the famous Homer Simpson line, “Let us never speak of the shortcut again” (not to mention the disastrous Oct. 30 storm that ended up being responsible for dozens of panels cancellations and is still wreaking havoc with airline schedules as I type), the fest came to a close the night of Nov. 5 with “The Program,” British filmmaker Stephen Frears’ dramatization of the Lance Armstrong story.

"The Program"
“The Program”

The problem (and this might have partially explained a half-empty ground floor of the Paramount for the film) is that virtually anyone interested in the Lance Armstrong story already knows the Lance Armstrong story. And Frears’ movie doesn’t offer fresh insights on this still-exceptionally weird tale. (It is a tale told  far better in Alex Holmes’ stellar documentary “Stop at Nothing” and Alex Gibney’s solid doc “The Armstrong Lie.”)

Based on sports journalist David Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong,” Frears swiftly (too swiftly, actually) covers the whole sordid tale.

Back in 1993 Armstong (a terrifying Ben Foster) is generally thought of (at least by Walsh) as a talented sprinter on the bike but not a guy built for the Tour de France’s punishing hills.  The films lays out their relationship rapidly: Armstrong, even then a merciless competitor, beats Walsh (Chris O’Dowd, charming as usual) in a game of foosball. The bet was Walsh’s beard — Walsh says he was kidding, Armstrong insists he shave. Next shot: no beard.

Armstrong, frustrated at certain teams too-consistent success,  starts sniffing around doping czar Michele Ferrari (played with a hint of Nazi-doctor by Guillaume Canet), the Italian physician who designed the titular doping program. But it’s not until after Armstrong’s still-miraculous bout with testicular cancer (rendered in appropriately horrifying, sickly greens, Foster’s body twisted in bed) that Armstrong goes all in with Ferrari, taking the U.S. Postal team along with him. He has beaten cancer in spectacular fashion, set himself up as an example of pure will and his feats on the bike will seal the deal.

Given that “the Program” is  as much Walsh’s perspective as it is Armstrong’s story, Frears keeps Armstrong at a distance (Armstrong’s personal life is virtually non-existent here). The most emotionally charged moment comes with a close-up on Walsh, watching Armstrong’s (quite literally) superhuman explosion into the lead in the 1998 Tour. As journalists cheer around him, Walsh’s face falls — he knows in his gut he is witnessing a con job and, worse, he knows that nobody cares.

And indeed, they don’t care. Cycling loves the publicity, Armstrong loves winning (which he parlays into the wildly successful Livestrong Foundation) and is smart enough never to test positive for performance enhancing drugs.

With a dead eyed stare and sense of destiny, Foster (and to a slightly lesser extent Lee Pace as extremely tall CSE co-founder Bil Stapleton) revels in this zero-sum if-I-win-then-you-must-lose worldview that somehow seems very Texan (or maybe it’s just the accent, not to mention Foster’s uncanny resemblance to Armstrong).

A wrinkle, as they say comes in the person of Floyd Landis (central Texan Jesse Plemons in an excellent performance). At first down for whatever, Landis, raised a devout Mennonite, struggles with guilt of all the lies and, increasingly, Armstrong’s willingness to intimidate those who speak to the press about cycling doping culture.  Eventually, Landis wins. Eventually, Landis confesses. Eventually, Armstrong is on Oprah, confessing the fraud to the world.

Unfortunately, the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong is an enormously complicated story. Characters who were central to Armstrong’s public story — whistle-blowers such as Betsy Andreu, wife of former teammate Frankie Andreu, and trainer Emma O’Reilly — are cyphers here.  If anything, Frears would have better served the material with that most 2010s of forms: the HBO mini series.

 

 

 

 

Austin Film Festival: Review of ‘Monsterman’

monsterman

What does a creative person do when he hits bottom? For Tomi Petteri Putaansuu (aka Mr. Lordi) the answer is double down on self-belief and bash on regardless.

Most American audiences likely aren’t familiar with the name Lordi, but for a time they were some of the most famous musicians in Finland. The heavy metal band – part Gwar, part Kiss – dresses in monster costumes and make-up and are never seen out of costume.

Though the band launched in 1992, it rocketed to success in 2006 after becoming the only Finnish band to ever win the wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest. They returned to their native Finland heroes, playing for thousands in a packed square under a hail of pyrotechnics. They had reached heights unthinkable for Mr. Lordi, who grew up in a small Finnish town obsessed with mythological worlds and intrigued by the fantasies like “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.”

But, as with most pop stars, the time on top did not last long. A few years later, the band and Mr. Lordi found themselves in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and the reception of the public had grown as cold as a long Finnish night.

Finnish filmmaker Annti Haase’s fascinating and humorous documentary “Monsterman,” the winner of the jury award for best documentary at the Austin Film Festival, tracks Mr. Lordi as he attempts to recapture the band’s magic and place in pop culture. Mr. Lordi has no other choice, really. As his sweet and supportive mother explains, the fantastical boy who never grew up is not suited for a 9-to-5 life. He grew up with his head adrift in his otherworldly creations, drawing comics and eventually finding an outlet for his creativity in music.

While we get no complete backstory of the monsters Mr. Lordi created, it seems he formed the stage act alter-ego as a response to bullying and alienation as a child. When he put on his mask, he became impenetrable and powerful. He also became indefatigable. Despite internal band drama, the closure of his themed restaurant, and a thin performance schedule that included thankless private gigs for Russian real estate agents, Mr. Lordi never gives up hope. And he never let shame shake him.

He struggled with writer’s block and some self-doubt, but, inspired in part by the death of a bandmate, the Peter Pan of heavy metal continued to manifest his dream. The documentary doesn’t lean on traditional talking-head interviews, because Mr. Lordi won’t be filmed without his costume. Instead we watch from a distance or over his shoulder as he takes meetings with doubtful record executives, squeezes himself into platform boots like a little kid playing dress-up and hawks his band to anyone who will listen.

The opening lyric to Lordi’s biggest hit, “Monsterman” may best capture the heroic spirit of the misunderstood and hopeless romantic of Lordi: “Would you love a monsterman/Could you understand/Beauty of the beast/I would do it all for you/Would you do it all/Do it all for me.”

“Monsterman” has its humorous moments — watching “monsters” undertake mundane tasks is never not funny — but Haase doesn’t pity, humiliate or condescend to his subjects. He simply puts his camera on Lordi and follows the improbable journey from would-be laughing stock to could-be hero. Lordi comes across as a creative and determined man supported by his loved one and his own delusion, but sometimes it takes delusion to make that long trip from the bottom to the top.

 

 

Austin Film Festival 2015: Review of ‘The Adderall Diaries’

adderall

“We understand the world by how we retrieve memories, re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.”

Director Pamela Romanowsky uses that quote from writer Stephen Elliott to introduce her scattered and jarring feature “The Adderall Diaries,” a movie based on Elliott’s book of the same name.

Elliott’s early years are told in a rapid-fire flashback sequence of nostalgic and turbulent scenes that lead to and inform his literary success. We see Elliott (James Franco, who produced the film) in his New York City loft attempting to write the follow-up work to the celebrated memoir that has made him one of the troubled darlings of the literary world. It becomes apparent from the opening quote, the discombobulated flashback and Elliott’s manipulation of words on the page that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator.

That unreliability crystalizes when Elliott’s father (a menacing Ed Harris) appears (or does he?) at a tony book reading to reveal his son’s literary achievement as fraudulent. Elliott’s story, built in part on the abuse of his monstrous father, claimed the father had died. When that part of the story is revealed as a lie, Elliott’s life and the film both crack open.

After witnessing stories of a news-hogging murder involving a wealthy businessman (Christian Slater) accused of killing his wife, Elliott gets drawn to the trial. The murder trial gives Elliott some allegorical insight into the sins of his own father, and reveals the complications of victimhood, but the parallel storyline never gains emotional momentum or makes much sense.

What it does is introduce Elliott to New York Times crime reporter Lana (Austin native Amber Heard), a sultry, motorcycle loving muse. But, is she real? If she is, she’s the most casually dressed reporter to ever cover a criminal case for a major daily newspaper. And, to that end, she seems to almost never do any writing or spend any time at the office.

But Elliott does find in Lana a kindred spirit, one with a shared history of drug use and one with scars of her own. Lana tends to wear her scars on the inside, however, while Elliott perpetually peels back his scabs in a self-immolating way that perpetuates his victimhood and destroys his personal relationships.

When his father attempts to reinsert himself into Elliott’s life, it becomes clear that the troubled writer’s account of his life is one he has created to suit the narrative he needs to tell himself about his own psyche. He retreats to drugs, though it is unclear exactly when his troubles with drugs escalated and why, and Franco plays the frenzied writer a palpable sense of dread, paranoia and excitement.

Romanowsky has trouble keeping all of the narrative thread together – the criminal trial fades and returns, Lana seemingly disappears after a brief argument, and another storyline about Elliott and a childhood friend is never given enough flesh to feel visceral – but Franco propels the story with his typical captivating charisma.

“The Adderall Diaries” is an interesting examination of how we construct memories and how we allowed the crimes perpetrated on us in our youth to shape or break us, but the frenetic tone and uneven storytelling feels more like an outline for a film than a finished product.

 

Austin Film Festival 2015: Review of ‘Burning Bodhi’


Ever since “The Big Chill” came out, filmmakers have chased the magical catharsis, humor and sexualized energy of the friends-coming-together-over-a-funeral genre.

Landon Liboiron, Kaley Cuoco and Cody Horn star in “Burning Bodhi.”

When those friends have only been out of high school a few years, there is a lot less emotional depth to mine and the young characters’ perspectives regarding life and death aren’t terribly compelling. Especially when the characters have as little depth and intrigue as those in Matthew McDuffie’s “Burning Bodhi,” which made its world premiere Sunday at the Austin Film Festival.

After learning of his friend Bodhi’s death, Dylan (Landon Liboiron) reluctantly decides to return home from Chicago to Albuquerque for the “FUNeral” being thrown by his cohort’s colorful and eccentric glue, Ember (Cody Horn, the film’s biggest asset).

We learn the reluctance comes from the fact that Bodhi slept with Dylan’s ex, Katy (Kaley Cuoco of “Big Bang Theory” fame). Dylan doesn’t know how to forgive the dead, and though the pain still lingers, he finds himself reaching out to Katy, who has fallen into a group of worthless drug users.

When he returns, Dylan doesn’t just wrestle with his unresolved feelings for his ex (feelings that seem a bit unbelievable for a high school relationship), he must also reckon with his parents as they reunite after years apart due to (guess what?) adultery.

The film traces a weekend of hurt feelings, miscommunications (watching people text in movies may be realistic but it generally makes for a painful moviegoing experience), and attempts to start anew.

But none of the characters or their relationships feel believable or worthy of interest. No amount of running mascara or heroin-chic eye makeup can make Cuoco a realistic addict run amok, and Liboiron’s stilted acting chops are more suited for the small screen (of which he is a veteran) than the big screen. The film’s brightest light is Horn, who mixes boldness and insecurity to dynamic effect. Playing a young lesbian, she gives a refreshing portrayal of ebullient but skittish sexuality.

But the script and soundtrack are an amalgamation of indie tropes. Combine that with poor sound design, weak production, set and costume design, and odd framing, and “Burning Bodhi” loses you before it reaches its intended emotional payoff.

 

Austin Film Festival: Review of ‘Memoria’

James Franco (pictured here at the 2011 Austin Film Festival) produced "Memoria," a film based on his story "California Childhood."
James Franco (pictured here at the 2011 Austin Film Festival) produced “Memoria,” a film based on his story “California Childhood.”

You would be foolish to classify or categorize James Franco’s career. The tireless multi-hyphenate’s writing, producing, directing and acting work has touched on myriad subjects and themes, from the triumph of will to individual expression. But the former “Freaks and Geeks” star definitely has an acute awareness of the specific trauma of childhood. He sensitively explored the pains of adolescence in his collection of stories “California Childhood.”

That book serves as the source material for “Memoria,” a dark, brooding and emotionally affecting film that made its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival Sunday afternoon and was picked up for North American distribution soon thereafter by Monterey Media. The propulsive but wandering film is directed by Nina Ljeti, whom Franco met while working on a performance piece in New York City, and Vladimir de Fontenay. Though Ljeti and de Fontenay grew up in Canada and France, respectively, they capture the ennui, frustration and kinetic energy of American adolescence, proving the teenage experience is a rather universal one.

The story focuses on Ivan Cohen (Austinite Sam Dillon), a teenager who drifts through school mired in a mixture of antagonistic friendships and alienation. That otherness extends to his home, where his mother and unsympathetic step-father offer little comfort. We meet Ivan in the film’s opening scenes standing on the Golden Gate Bridge, as he stares into the stormy ocean below.

The movie is told through flashback, and the establishing shots on the shrouded bridge loom over the entire movie. The bridge even reappears like a specter halfway through the film to remind us where the action is likely headed.

As Franco told the audience after the screening, the character of Ivan was based on someone with whom Franco went to school. He described the young man as schizophrenic and troubled, and the directors use motion, music and misdirection to communicate a palpable sense of paranoia and unease. Even when Ivan finds a slight connection with those around him, it becomes severed, as with a bad LSD trip that captures the dark side of the psychedelic experience as well as any in recent movie memory.

Inspired by an empathic teacher played by Franco, Ivan turns to writing to express himself and find catharsis. But it remains unclear whether Ivan will find hope or his salvation in art or whether the demons in his mind and the cruel but unremarkable world around him will take him into the abyss. “Memoria” is a poignant and troubling film, but it rarely telegraphs its shots and treats its young subjects with a slightly removed concern. It deserves a place among some of the best in the “troubled teen” genre.

“Memoria” screens again Monday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Galaxy Highland.

 

 

Austin Film Festival 2015: ‘Night Is Young’ is outrageous but sweet

A scene from "The Night Is Young."
A scene from “The Night Is Young.”

Jane Sumner wrote this review for the American-Statesman.

This funny, florid and outrageous but ultimately sweet comedy romance about the Los Angeles dating scene by first-time filmmakers Matt Jones (Badger in “Breaking Bad”) and Dave Hill (Matthew Derringer in “The Most Popular Girls in School”) is the third film titled “The Night Is Young.”

The 1935 feature had Mexican sex symbol Ramon Novarro as an Austrian archduke ducking an arranged marriage to a royal he doesn’t love. In the 1986 French film, originally titled “Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood),” Leos Carax directed an influential, poetic and visually stunning crime drama with Denis Levant and Juliette Binoche. Jones’ and Hill’s debut couldn’t be more different.

Using their own first names as lead characters, the co-writers-directors play friends Matt (Jones) and Dave (Hill) fed up with their show business jobs and life in the City of Angels.

Matt is an actor everyone thinks is mentally challenged since he plays a dim character named Smash, who crushes empty beer cans against his head, in a popular TV series “The Hard Line.”

Dave is a writer for the American version of a kids’ show about a magical evil-fighting panda that’s big in Korea and, he says, “barely entertains six-year-olds.” But his overbearing, nasty boss is a 25-year-old Ivy Leaguer who constantly rewrites his material.

Tired of rejection, Dave tells his sad, negative buddy Matt that he’s falling apart and needs to drink some drinks and talk to women. He wonders if there are fascinating people out there and they just haven’t met them. Soon they will.

And as luck would have it they go to the same bar where sensible market analyst Amy (Kelen Coleman) is trying to keep her more adventurous friend, waitress and aspiring actress Syd (Eloise Mumford), from getting involved with a “hot” good-looking waiter.

When a bartender blithely ignores Matt and Dave to serve Amy and Syd, the men protest and meet the smart, opinionated women Dave declares are bitches. “Which is attractive,” Matt says. Syd says she knows Dave. He’s the guy who stares at her butt in yoga class. And so it begins.

The LA quartet is real and appealing. But along the way we meet a series of self-absorbed, off-putting characters with conversation so inane we understand why singles turn from the bar scene to computer dating.

Before the evening is over, Dave will tell off his officious boss Darren (Johnny Pemberton) and quit his job to audience cheers. The four twentysomethings play “conversational tennis,” drink, change bars, drink, pair off, re-align and hail a ride to a house party.

And it’s here we encounter veteran actress Allison Janney, whose many credits include “The West Wing,” as Wanda the driver who dispenses such words of wisdom that Dave asks if she’s a ghost. It’s a cameo turn, but Janney stands out as a positive force who doesn’t need unparliamentary language to make a point.

House party host Rick Ramsey (Brett Gelman) leads his guests through Griffith Park to an overlook with the observatory from “Rebel Without a Cause” in the background. As shot by cinematographer Dominique Martinez, the lights of Los Angeles sparkle like diamonds (or unfulfilled dreams) down below, and though everyone shouts epithets to the city, it’s a charming, uplifting scene, the start of some friendships and maybe something more.

Austin Film Festival 2015: ‘The teller and the Truth’ is multi-layered meditation

A scene from "The Teller and the Truth"
A scene from “The Teller and the Truth”

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

If you’re a fan of movies that blur distinctions between fiction and reality, “The Teller and the Truth,” a Texas-centric mockumentary from director/writer and Austinite Andrew Shapter, is for you. And even if you’re not, this beautifully realized meditation on life and loss may end up winning you over.

The movie is based – although very loosely, it must be said – on some actual events that went down in Smithville, Texas, some four decades ago. In the film’s version of things, in December of 1974 a local bank is robbed. Two weeks later Francis Wetherbee, a beautiful young teller engaged to the bank’s president, disappears. Her car is soon found in a nearby river, but Francis herself has vanished. Do those two events have a connection? Years pass before someone starts to put two and two together.

Shapter – who went through much, including lengthy chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer, over a six-year journey to make the film – has produced an unusual cross between “The Blair Witch Project” and “Twin Peaks,” with a small-town Texas accent. Using amateur performers along with professional actors, Shapter gets the weirdness of everyday life down cold as he chases the story of what really happened to Francis and her possible lover/co-conspirator, Oliver Pearce, a Vietnam vet with a shady past who worked as a projectionist at the local movie theater, and who disappears at the same time as Francis.

Starting off in the style of a true-crime documentary/procedural examining a cold-case file, the film slowly shifts into something else entirely as it gets closer to the principals and their motives – whether real or imagined. Friends, coworkers and acquaintances of Francis and Oliver, along with an FBI agent and local law enforcement officials, all get their say. In its languid yet involving manner – helped along in no small degree by the ethereal tension of Carl Thiel’s score – “The Teller and the Truth” eventually comes to resemble the dreams and fantasies woven by people who have had someone close to them go missing, just vanished, and are left to wonder, for the remainder of their lives, what became of them. Eventually, we hear from Francis – or the dream of Francis – herself.

The story veers far afield from Texas before coming back to where it all began. In the end, it’s a love story – or more precisely, a story about love and loss of all kinds.

Factually speaking, don’t take any of it to the bank, as it were, but “The Teller and the Truth” has a lot to say about the fascination with people – especially young women – who go missing in, to quote the film, “the bloom of life.” Whether what it tells us is truth, fiction, wishful thinking, or a mixture of all three, “The Teller and the Truth” ends up raising more questions than it answers. That’s not a bad thing.

“The Teller and the Truth” had its premiere Sunday at the Austin Film Festival.

 

Austin Film Festival 2015: A Conversation with Norman Lear

Norman Lear
Norman Lear

“Everybody Loves Raymond” and “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having” creator Phil Rosenthal chatted with legendary television creator Norman Lear about Lear’s life and experiences in television during the Austin Film Festival Saturday at the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel.

The panel began and ended with standing ovations for Lear, who was responsible for tackling then-taboo subjects including race, gender and abortion in his 1970s situation comedies.

Lear, wearing his trademark hat, discussed his childhood and subsequent family life, and told Rosenthal that he had been a humor writer for his high school newspaper. His column was called, “Notes to You from King Lear.”

“Did somebody encourage you to do that?
“ Rosenthal asked?

“No,” Lear replied. “Nobody ever encouraged me to do anything.”

He later became a shadow writer for social columnists at New York City newspapers, feeding them humorous items. If his material got laughs, he said, he never got to hear nor enjoy them.

A sobering segment about Lear’s moral crisis in the military, where he flew in 52 missions bombing Berlin in a B-17, led to lighter anecdotes about Frank Sinatra and, eventually, the genesis of “All in the Family.”

Phil Rosenthal
Phil Rosenthal

Lear was working on Martha Ray’s live, musical television program when he discovered that filmed programs that could be rerun, such as “I Married Joan,” were potentially very lucrative. He picked this up from a friend who wrote on that program and was going through a divorce. All his ex-wife wanted, he told Lear, were his “Joan Allen reruns.”

“There was more excitement in live television, but for good reason, I wanted to do a situation comedy,” Lear said.

Eventually, he discovered the British television comedy “Til Death Us Do Part,” which focused on a father and son who fought about political issues. “My father called me the laziest white kid he ever met,” Lear recalled. When Lear would try to educate his father about the racial problems with such statements, his father would respond that his son was also “the dumbest white kid he ever met.” So the material resonated with him.

Lear made a pilot, “And Justice for All,” in which future “All in the Family” icon Carroll O’Conner played a character named Archie Justice. His future television wife Jean Stapleton also starred. The pilot was never made into a series, but the network wanted it remade in a year so it could keep its option on the property. Lear recalls shooting the exact same script two more times with different actors. Finally, a regime change at CBS led to the series being picked up as “All in the Family.”

“At the moment of commitment the entire universe conspires to assist you,” Lear told the crowd, quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “I take credit for casting those four people, but can take no credit for what developed after that. The chemistry was glorious from the start and got more so in every episode. That was a gift from the gods.”

When Rosenthal told the crowd that Lear’s trailblazing was largely responsible for his own success, Lear humbly replied, “We all walk in on the shoulders of others.”

Rosenthal noted that because of the importance we place upon “All in the Family” in the history of television, we tend to forget how funny it is. This led to a discussion of the famous episode guest-starring Sammy Davis Jr., the first toilet flush heard on television and the transvestite character to whom Archie administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in his cab.

The subject of taboo topics led to the discussion of Lear’s spin-off, “Maude,” and the episode centering on abortion. Lear noted that when the episode first ran, there was nary a peep, with the exception of perhaps a few complaint letters.

“But when show went into reruns, the religious right — the far right, the crazies that now compose the tea party — knew the show was coming on,” he said. They showed up in force with banners and laid down in front of cars in protest.

“I didn’t understand I was expressing a point of view, because I was defending the comedy we were trying to do,” Lear told the audience, noting that all of the shows were filmed in front of live audiences he was attempting to entertain. At some point, he said, he realized that if the biggest problems faced by characters on shows that preceded his was that “the boss was coming to dinner and roast was ruined,” well, that fact was also sending a “wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling message” — that everything was fine and dandy in America. At that point, he began to embrace his platform.

This resulted in Lear proudly winding up on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, which Lear discovered as a result of Nixon’s infamous tapes. A seven-minute segment of the recordings, Lear said, found the President bemoaning an episode of “All in the Family” with Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman. In that episode, Carroll O’Connor’s bigoted Archie Bunker learned that one of his favorite athletes, a pro linebacker, was gay.

“These were his words,” Lear said: “we were ‘making fun of a good man (Bunker).’ ”

As usual, Rosenthal was a great interviewer and the perfect choice to guide the 93-year-old Lear through the discussion even if, at times, Lear appeared uncomfortable with the adulation.

“You’re wet,” Lear told Rosenthal, explaining that he’d long ago decided people fit into one of two categories: dry or wet.

“If you’re dry, there are no hugs You’re brittle; flaky. If you hug someone who’s a dry person, you could get cut on their body,” Lear joked. “Wet people are huggable and warm. And you’re soaking wet.”

“In many ways that I don’t even want to go into,” Rosenthal replied. “Norman Lear, you made my life better.”

Austin Film Festival 2015: The greatness of ‘Lone Star’ and awardee Chris Cooper

MSDLOST EC013There were no amazing inside stories shared about the movie and no detailed discussions about Texas border politics, but Friday night at the Paramount served as a wonderful reminder that John Sayles’ “Lone Star” is one of the greatest Texas movies ever made.

Ironically, in today’s political climate, I wonder if the movie would even be eligible for tax incentives from the Texas Film Commission. Sayles 1996 film takes a detailed look at the complex personal, social and political dynamics surrounding a largely Hispanic Texas border town. The story is told trough the lens of Sheriff Sam Deeds (an amazingly measured and deep Chris Cooper, this year’s AFF Outstanding Contribution to Film awardee, who was on hand for Q&A). Deeds is tracking a cold case that peels back the layers of mythology surrounding his late father, Sherif Buddy Deeds (steely Matthew McConaughey showing early promise). His investigation uncovers not just a murder mystery but also reveals the fissures that run through multiple generations of several ethnicities of the small Texas town and highlights the delicate social balance of the Latinos and Caucasians in the community. Cooper’s moral compass also shines a light on the accepted levels of unspoken corruption in government and law enforcement, with a gnarly and disturbing performance from Kris Kristoffeson providing the dark counterpoint to Deeds.

The movie, which might not be made today based simply on its slow, thoughtful pacing and deeply humanistic approach to storytelling, unfolds like a staged play born from the oral tradition of Texas campfire tales. That feeling was reinforced when a serious and modest Cooper took the stage following the film and discussed his long history in stage acting.

Cooper worked as a thespian for 15 years before getting his break in film. It was a period of intense training and maturation for which Cooper is deeply thankful. He reiterated several times that young actors should work in the theater before moving to movies, an admonition that had traces of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of 10,000 hours of practice being the building blocks of excellence.

A serious and reflective Cooper discussed how Sayles gave him his first film role, in 1987’s “Matewan,” and how they had become dear friends ever since, one of Cooper’s closest in the business. He said that working on the very low-budget “Lone Star,” in which the cast stayed in a Motel 6, was a joy due to his family-like cast members and the amazing script from Sayles, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

“You don’t mess with his words,” Cooper said. “And he can justify every one of them.”

Friday night was a reminder of the raw power of a great screenplay and reinforced (not that it needed reinforcing) why Cooper is such a deserving awardee this year. The man who fell in love with movies as a child while watching “East of Eden” is a true actor’s actor from the old school. A man who prefers art to commerce.

When asked about his (uncredited) role in “Spider-Man 2,” he dead panned, “Those things aren’t really my thing.”

His thing? Working with people like Sayles. The two will work together on their sixth film next year in Washington state.

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.