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.

‘Dear White People’ delivers some blunt conversations

“Dear White People,” the new Netflix TV series created by Justin Simien, premiered Monday at South by Southwest to thunderous applause. The screening featured episodes 1 and 2, and it became quickly clear that Simien is looking at the same events through different perspectives.

Episode 1 is told from the perspective of Samantha White, played by Logan Browning, who has a radio show titled “Dear White People.” She’s upset that the fictional, mostly-white Ivy League school that she attends is allowing a blackface party, and she goes on the air to explain that dressing up like her for Halloween isn’t cool.

If you think this is a one-note kind of message, well, it isn’t. Samantha is very complicated, navigating various identities. She acts one way with her best friends, quite another with the campus black caucus and even more differently with her boyfriend.

The same can be said for Episode 2, which is told from the perspective of Lionel, played by DeRon Horton. He’s an aspiring journalist, works for the school newspaper and is also roommates with campus hunk Troy (Brandon P. Bell). But he’s trying to find himself, because he’s actually gay but in the closet.

After the screening, which brought lots of laughter, Simien and the cast discussed the series, which will have 10 episodes, and Simien stressed that he wanted to tell the story with multiple protagonists. He cited Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and the films of Robert Altman as being major influences.

So, this will be an ensemble series. Simien says he also is aware that people might binge-watch the series since it will be on Netflix, so he says he took that into mind when he adapted his 2014 movie of the same name for a TV series.

The trailer for the series, however, has drawn online criticism, which has focused on what some white folks think is a condescending attitude reflected in the title. But that’s part of the point of the series. Samantha White is trying to make white people feel uncomfortable when they’re categorized in such ways. And the series makes it clear that black people feel that way for much of their lives.

Whether you agree with that premise or not, such discussions and realizations about race in America are long overdue, and “Dear White People” might help jumpstart the process. SXSW is to be commended for giving the series a spotlight in Austin.

“Dear White People” is scheduled to stream on Netflix later this year.

 

Alamo Drafthouse’s newest bartender at SXSW: Jason Sudeikis

With his latest movie premiering at the Alamo Drafthouse on Lamar during South by Southwest, actor Jason Sudeikis did what all hilarious guys dream of one day doing: tending bar.

That’s right, the “Saturday Night Live” alum and star of “Colossal” jumped behind the Highball Bar at the Alamo Drafthouse this weekend to serve up some drinks at the film’s after party.

Here’s the proof:

Jason Sudeikis bartends the SXSW after party for Colossal at the Alamo Lamar Drafthouse Photo Credit: Getty Wireimage

Sudeikis stars in “Colossal” along side Anne Hathaway. Here’s the trailer for the film that opens  worldwide on April 7. Here’s the review. 

‘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.

‘Empire’ creator Lee Daniels gets emotional at SXSW keynote

Director/producer Lee Daniels gave an emotional keynote address to SXSW on Sunday, detailing how he grew up in a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia, how he learned to fend for himself, how he eventually attended college, only to leave early because he wanted to head to Hollywood.

He talked of living in the back of a church, staging plays and finally getting a full-time job at a nursing agency, where he worked the phones and used his “white voice.” Then he realized that he could set up his own nursing agency, so he did. And then he realized he wanted to fulfill his dream of working in Hollywood, so he sold the agency and got a P.A. job on a new project. That project just happened to be Prince’s “Purple Rain.”

The rest is history, as they say. He was pushy. He was honest. Prince liked him. Warner Bros., where he was working, didn’t. He was hired, fired, rehired. You get the idea. He spoke his mind and was honest. And he eventually rose to the ranks, so much so that he branched out and became the producer of “Monster’s Ball,” which went on to earn an Oscar for its star, Halle Berry.

He followed that up with various movies, including “Precious,” starring Gabourey Sidibe, and “The Paperboy,” starring Matthew McConaughey. He also has most recently started working in TV, with the hit shows “Empire.”

Along the way of telling his life story – and during his question-and-answer session afterward – Daniels made a few comments that might attract attention, notably that he didn’t quit understand the #oscarsowhite movement. He said that he didn’t think Hollywood owed him anything — and that he really owed himself something. But he added that he understood the racism, and wasn’t trying to deny it.

He also said that the Trump administration might be good for Hollywood, because it might spur creativity. And he revealed that he complained to Oprah Winfrey after the premiere of his latest series, “Star,” which didn’t have quite the audience numbers of “Empire.” She thought he was being a bit much, saying he was acting like “a petulant child” and that the show’s numbers were solid.

And then, in another emotional moment late in the session, Daniels was reuninted with his p “Precious” star, Sidibe, who had been sitting in the audience unannounced. He called her up on stage.

Daniels asked how he was doing, and she said he was doing okay for someone who didn’t finish college.

 

‘Divine Divas’ salutes groundbreaking Brazilian artists

With all of the bathroom debate going on at the state Capitol in Austin, SXSW has decided to highlight a new documentary about Brazilian performers who were born male and pursued a life of dressing up as women and singing — and “acting!”

“Divine Divas” tracks the lives of the first generation of Brazilian transvestite and drag artists of the 1960s. And yes, there’s a difference between transvestites and drag artists, and that difference can be easily Googled. But this documentary includes both. Some are transgender as well, although this word apparently isn’t used in Brazil the same way it’s used in the United States. It’s complicated.

They all started performing a generation ago at the Rival Theatre in Rio de Janeiro, one of the first venues to embrace such artists. It was founded by Americo Leal, the grandfather of the director of “Divine Divas,” Leandra Leal.

The rise of such divas in Rio was highly controversial, as the director points out, in part because the performers challenged the rigid moral standards of a military dictatorship and insisted on individual freedoms.

“Divine Divas” brings eight of these performers back together again after they have entered their 70s. And it celebrates their 50 years as performers.

They get to tell their stories, and no two stories are exactly alike. Some have chosen to have hormone treatments. Some chose to have surgery. Some live as women. Some do not. It’s complicated, as life usually is. But there’s a general enjoyment of life, with few regrets.

The performers sing their own songs, and some are quite good. The documentary takes us behind the scenes to show how some of the people transform themselves into their stage presences. And they talk of the difficulties they faced when they were much younger.

In the press notes for the movie, the director says she “understood that each of their lives — every one of them — was a work of art, but also a political gesture. As artists, they allowed themselves to build a new identity, to sculpt their bodies to be on stage, to live from their dreams and, for that matter, to live the great spectacle of being who you truly are.”

Now that’s a great line — living the great spectacle of being who you truly are.

“Divine Divas” screens at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Alamo South.