Austin Film Festival 2009 part 1

The 16th annual Austin Film Festival started last Thursday, and I’m attending this year for the first time. Even though I watch a lot of movies, I’ve shied away from most film festivals in the past because I was under the impression that they would be mostly a combination of artsy and preachy. While there are some of both, most of the movies I’ve seen so far are neither, which was also my experience with Fantastic Fest last month.

The Austin Film Festival lasts eight days (Thursday through Thursday), although I won’t be able to attend anything on the last day. Nevertheless, I’m on pace for eighteen movies over the seven days I can attend, with two every evening during the week and four each on Saturday and Sunday. Below, you can find a brief summary of the films that I saw on the first three days.

Day 1 — Thursday, October 22

Serious Moonlight — Meg Ryan plays a self-assured lawyer who doesn’t take it well when her husband (Timothy Hutton) tells her he’s leaving her for a younger woman (Kristin Bell). She ties him up and threatens to hold him hostage until he sees the error of his ways. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and humor of the movie and the not-quite-predictable manner in which it arrives at its resolution. I give it an 8/10.
This movie was written by Adrienne Shelly around the same time that she wrote Waitress. It was directed by Cheryl Hines, who was in attendance to introduce the movie and do a Q&A afterwards.

Youth in Revolt — Michael Cera plays a bright but awkward 16-year-old who falls for a girl who likes him as well. However, fate seems to have it out for them and keeps putting up roadblocks in their relationship. Michael develops a “bad boy” alter ego who wreaks quite a bit of havoc and gets into more trouble than he bargained for.
I thought that the trailer for this movie was pretty funny, but didn’t hold out a lot of hope that the movie would be able to match it. Fortunately, I was wrong and it was able to hang onto its humor for the duration. It doesn’t have the hilarity of Zombieland or Superbad, but it’s worth seeing when it comes out early next year. 7/10.

Day 2 — Friday, October 23

31 Minutes — This is a very unique movie, based on a Chilean TV show of the same name. It features a team of puppets that work together produce a parody news show. The producer is a rare type of animal that an evil millionaire needs to finish her collection in an island zoo, so she arranges to have him kidnapped and taken to the island. When the rest of the crew find out, they set off on a rescue mission.
The story itself was fine, but the real draw for this movie is the comedy. It was extremely funny. It was in Spanish with English subtitles, but they were very well done (no obvious spelling or grammatical errors, and they generally captured the meaning and not a literal word-for-word translation) and didn’t detract from the experience. On top of that, the film print of the movie didn’t arrive in time for the showing, so they had to show the DVD they provided for screening the movie, and it featured a pretty prominent watermark in the middle of the picture, but it got pretty easy to ignore that. The experience could have been a little bit better, but the movie itself was excellent. 8/10.

Calvin Marshall — Alex Frost plays Calvin Marshall, a junior college student who loves baseball and wants to go pro but he’s having a hard time making the college team. No one works harder than he does, and the coach (who used to be a minor league player himself, played by Steve Zahn) appreciates the effort and really doesn’t want to cut him. Calvin is also a sportscaster for the school’s TV station and is an announcer for sports events, like women’s volleyball. It is there that he meets and instantly falls for Tori Jensen (played by Michelle Lombardo). Over the course of the movie, Calvin tries to play the game he loves and woo the girl he likes. Andrew Wilson, Diedrich Bader, and Abraham Benrubi also played supporting roles. Like most baseball movies, there was a lot going on besides just baseball, but it came together well to create a very enjoyable movie. 8/10.
This was the movie’s world premiere, and several of the cast and crew were present. This included the director (Gary Lundgren), actors Diedrich Bader and Michelle Lombardo (among others), producers, and other crew. The director introduced the film, and several of them answered questions afterwards.

Day 3 — Saturday, October 24

Missy and the Maxinator — From the description, this sounded like it could be a fun movie. Max is a geeky high school kid who wants to upgrade his current “best friends” status with Missy, the girl next door, to something more. However, he finds that something unusual is happening, and he’s starting to acquire super powers like super strength and hearing and the ability to see through walls. That’s extremely lucky for the rest of us, because two of his teachers are working on a plot to go back in time and change the outcome of World War II so they could take over the world.
I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece, but was hoping for something fun. I was pretty disappointed all the way around. The digital video was shot at worse than DVD resolution and was very grainy, and there were several breaks in the soundtrack where the sound would end too early before a scene change. The acting was horrible (even more so from the adults than the kids), and there were lots of mistakes and continuity errors. But the biggest problem was the weak story, which was weak and not well thought out. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it into the “so bad it’s good” category (I’m not sure if it went too far or not far enough), so I’ll give it a 3/10 rating. I can see how it might have some appeal to the preteen crowd (which is fitting, since the director, who was in attendance, works for Nickelodeon), but I can usually get at least some enjoyment out of those kinds of movies, and in this case there was too much that I couldn’t overlook to get to that point.

Straight to the Bone — This is a very Austin-centric movie about a woman (Shannon) in a long relationship with a guy (Jay) who doesn’t want to get married. When she’s dealing with dealing with a particular bout of frustration from that, she has a couple of chance encounters with another guy (Blake) and they hit it off. When Jay decides that he needs to get away for a couple of days, Shannon finds herself on a date with Blake.
In general, I thought that this was a pretty good movie. It had a good basic story, and was pretty well acted. There were some video problems with a lot of digital artifacting around cuts, but I think that the film festival itself is to blame for that, since this is the first year they’re going digital and there are some bugs to be worked out in the conversion process as I saw similar problems (although not to the same extent) in a couple of other movies. I do think that it captured a bit too much of the Austin hippie culture, and it was a little too slowly-paced (which probably comes from the fact that the cast and crew wrote the movie as they went along over more than a year of filming when they could get everyone together), but I think that both of those are things that could be improved with a bit of editing. I give it a 6/10.

Hockey Night in Texas — This is a documentary that follows a few teams over a season of an amateur adult hockey league in Austin. I really don’t like hockey, and you couldn’t drag me to see a game or even watch one on TV, and the only reason that I decided to see it was that it happened to be sandwiched between two other movies that I wanted to see and I decided that it wasn’t worth going home for an hour and a half. I’m glad that I stayed because I loved this movie. It was very funny, and very fast-paced, complete with 50’s-style how-to clips interspersed ala Dodge Ball. The guys (and at least one woman) are pretty bad and at least most of them acknowledge and embrace that to have a really good time, and that translates well to the screen. I still have no desire to watch hockey, but I would watch this again. 8/10.
The director was there to introduce it and do a Q&A, and he said that there were hundreds of hours of footage that had been shot, but that didn’t show at all in the 83 minutes that actually made it in. A large percentage of the audience was comprised of players from the league, which helped to further enhance the experience.

Lo — Lo is the story of a guy who summons a demon to help him get a girl who he had fallen in love with but had herself been kidnapped by another demon. It was heavily-inspired by Faust, which is directly acknowledged in the movie. It was billed as being funny, but didn’t really succeed at that. It ultimately felt like we were watching a tape of a musical theater production, and the director said that although he wrote it as a movie they were exploring the possibility of running it as a play. The story was interesting, but the movie was a little too experimental and artistic for my taste. 5/10.