my Movie
Austin Film Festival 2005 (10.20.05 - 10.27.05, 13 movies)
Date Viewed Movie Director Notes
10.20.05 ShopgirlAnand TuckerSomething's in the air. Is it the smell of desperation? The sweet stink of screenplays passed from hand to hand? The invading aroma of out-of-towners on sojourn to their big break into the movie business? Maybe it's just the horse-drawn carriage that standing next to me. In any case, the 12th Annual Austin Film Festival is officially underway.

Since I'm a movie junkie and not a roundtable/panel fiend, the Heart of Texas Screenwriter's Conference doesn't really appeal to me. Instead, I'm standing in front of the lovely Paramount Theater in downtown Austin, TX with my ID out ready to get in to see Shopgirl.

Starring and written by Steve Martin (based off his novella), Shopgirl is a story about a lonely girl (Claire Danes) going through different relationships, one with a clueless slacker type (Jason Schwartzman) and the other with a wealthy but non-committal rich old dude (Martin). This isn't really a plot-driven movie but more of an emotional exploration as we watch these three characters go about their lives. Wow, I managed to make this movie sound really boring.

Without the spoilers, I'll just say that it was decent, had some definite moments, and was worth watching. Given the subject matter, the film could have been a lot worse but good acting, competent direction, and a really heavy score and aesthetic gives you the feeling that the movie is more than it really is.

Jason Schwartzman is incredible in this. Yes, every scene that he's in feels like a completely different and much funnier movie, but he's really great and plays the character very well. Danes delivers as well but her relationship with Steve Martin seems a bit creepy to me. I couldn't get through this movie without entertaining the thought that Martin wrote the story, adapted it for the screen, produced it and starred in it just so he could get to make out with Claire Danes. Just like believing that the actors get line readings through the phone whenever they're talking on-screen, I have to believe that such a clearly obvious opportunity wasn't taken advantage of. Hey, I'd like to make out with Claire Danes... I'll write a story about how I'm rich and suave and get to dress her up then do dirty things to her. Awesome!

I'm sure Steve Martin is a really nice guy and a complete gentleman, even if he does write in a hand-going-up-dress scene for himself now and then, but it was a problem for me to avoid thinking about his motives while watching. Also, the scenes between him and Danes are so much more dramatic than anything involving Schwartzman that I feel it strayed a bit too far and cut the film in half for me.

I still liked it though. Pretty Good. Afterward, director Anand Tucker, Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman came out for a Q&A. It's at this point that you're reading the page thinking "Where are the great pictures of the beautiful Claire Danes, the funny and hairy Jason Schwartzman and the... directory Anand Tucker?" Well, wanting to do the right thing, I asked the proper AFF people about bringing a camera in or even running out after the movie's over to pick it up just for the Q&A, and I got a resounding negative. Of course, there were a good half dozen flashes going off so I'm spiteful enough to wish everyone that snuck a camera in and took awesome pics and got away with it a bad night's sleep and some non-lethal-yet-annoying malady in the near future.

Some interesting notes from the Q&A:

-Tucker tried to base the tone of the film on old Powell & Pressburger and Douglas Sirk movies. He cited A Matter of Life and Death as one of his favorites and loved how the main characters fall in love in the first five minutes of that film.

-When talking about his character, Jason Schwartzman stated that it "was like invisible ink inside him and Claire was like the lemon juice." Danes blushed a bit at this, looking extremely glamorous and gorgeous in a slinky black backless gown, coat and heels. I tell you, folks. I was third row center, the pictures would have been magnificent.

-When asked about the hardest scene to shoot, both Schwartzman and Danes talked about their final kiss. They are actually close in real life and have been friends for some years. Danes mentioned that they'd had sleep-overs before, quickly following with "not that kind of sleep-over" to which Schwartzman shrugged his shoulders then blew a kiss up to the balcony, drawing massive amounts of laughter.

-As a last note, when you watch the film there's a scene set in a Best Buy where a few characters shop for books on tape. Watch out for copies of My So-Called Life down in the corner, apparently the dastardly doing of "that wiley art department."
10.20.05 Kiss Kiss, Bang BangShane BlackAfter Shopgirl, we all had to head back outside where lines had already formed for the next showing at the Paramount: Shane Black's Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Black, who has apparently been to AFF several times in the past (during the Q&A after the show he mentioned that he's finally good for more than drinks at the Driskill), was here tonight not just for panels and roundtables but also to show his new film which he wrote and directed.

Before the show, they played a nice little AFF intro where an announcer tries to pass off LA as Austin, calling the LA River the mighty Rio Grande and the Chinese Theater the Paramount. It drew chuckles the first time but I predict I will officially hate it by Monday.

The movie itself is really great. It's a "tough guy" movie that manages to be post-modern and self-referential but also true to the genre at the same time. Robert Downey Jr., who plays a New York petty thief wrangled into LA rising stardom, supplies some really great narration, speaking to those of us in the audience who have seen three hundred movies similar to this before. It's smart and quick and sharp, throwing out references, mea culpas, and non sequiturs left and right. My only complaint is that it goes away for about an hour. Yep, I found myself missing voice-over. Crazy, I know.

Val Kilmer also gives a great performance as Gay Perry, a private detective hired to coach Downey Jr. for a part. Michelle Monaghan fills out the leading cast, acting well and looking unbelievably hot in every shot. Black doesn't shy away from the casual nudity and hot chicks that make movies like these so enjoyable. This is very much an LA movie. It's set during the Holidays so you get that unique LA Christmas atmosphere of garish color, oddball excess and industry-fueled celebritydom. In the movie, it's like a big deal that Monaghan has done a commercial, and it actually IS a big deal because the commercial becomes very important in the last scene.

What's great about this movie is that, while simultaneously making fun of the late-80s/90s action stuff that made Black famous but also including authentic action sequences done very well, it’s really about this complex mystery tale very much in the vein of the classic noir pulp fiction of Chandler and Cain. A fictional series of dime store novels fuels the central plot and the film is even divided into chapters, each with a title taken from Chandler's work. The supporting characters all have classic crime story names like Harlan Dexter, Dabney Shaw, and Harmony Faith Lane. The plot is so complex and moves so quickly that I'm actually a bit unsure about a few of the twists and turns that it takes. It's a movie that definitely warrants repeat viewings to understand all of its layers (much like The Big Lebowski (no, I’m not joking)).

I'm convinced that there's a rather huge revelation in the last shot of the film, but I don't know what it means yet so I won't say anything.

Overall, I had a blast with this movie. It was really refreshing, consistently surprising, and thoroughly enjoyable. Even the beginning titles were in a grungy animated style, somewhat reminiscent of Catch Me If You Can's titles, that work with John Ottman's score to establish a neo-retro post-modern classicist tone that this movie somehow thrives in. A real treat.

Afterward, Shane Black came out for questions:

-The story originally started as a very dark romantic comedy. Black showed it to James L. Brooks at one point to get feedback and Brooks said it was trying awfully hard to NOT be an action movie; it was feeling more like Black was trying to be him. He then brought up a few movies like Chinatown which, while still a genre picture, was not really an action movie. At this, Black said that made complete sense and the invisible planes stuck in a holding pattern around his head now had the OK to land and the script went from there.

-It took him 21 months to write the script and then no one picked it up or had any interest at all. Some returned it with bizarre notes like "we're not looking for a period picture," clearly not even reading it. Then, luckily, Joel Silver read it, liked it, and really got behind it. Warner Brothers gave him 15 million and basically said "get back to us with the finished film" so there was no studio influence at all with this movie. Black stated that he really only had one man to please, and if both he and Silver liked something then it's in the movie. Black mentioned that having Joel Silver's ear was like a huge invisible club following him around, making sure things got done the way he wanted them to. He also stated that shooting digitally was never a question because Joel Silver does not shoot digital. He loves film and Black loves film and that was that.

-One of his main conscious goals with this movie was not to cater to the audience, but to make them have to stay alert and keep up. Also, while he references a lot of genre conventions and pokes a little fun at a few of them, he feels the movie, at its core, has a good heart so he didn't want to make the violence that graphic or let the tone get too serious. At one point he mentioned that action movies are all about ejaculation anyway, with all the machine guns spitting out fire and bullets and things exploding, so he said "Screw it. Why not make it literal? Have someone actually shoot with his dick." That drew more than a few laughs.

-On working with both Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, he said despite the ongoing rumors about their difficulty to work with, both actors were "angels." Both very professional, very courteous and ultimately gave really great performances. Black mentioned that there was real chemistry between the two and that they remain good friends after filming. He also said that Mel Gibson called up Joel Silver and personally vouched for Robert Downey Jr. to land him the gig. Shane Black originally kept seeing Downey around the office because he was dating one of Joel Silver's producers, but after Gibson's call he just sat him down and had him read a few lines and it was like hearing the perfect translation of his script coming out of Doney's mouth. I have to say that's true, Downey's dialogue, both in the film and the narration, is supremely natural and hilarious.

-When asked if Black was influenced at all from either the Coen Brothers or Charlie Kaufman for this movie, he responded that, to him, the Coens make movies about other movies and that they're very heady and intellectual. For him, he always takes from real life and real experiences and emotions and never from other films. As for Kaufman, he said that he's never seen a Kaufman film. That's not for any reason in particular, he hears great things about them, but he just hasn't caught any of his work yet.

-According to Black, doing the whole Robert Altman overlapping dialogue thing is easier than you'd think. It does create more work for the editor but it's not impossible and coverage wasn't a problem considering the naturalism and humor that you get from it.

-One person asked him "What were you like as a child?" the question was ultimately more enjoyable than the answer.

-Another person, clearly an aspiring writer, asked him how much of the script is on the screen since he directed this as well. Black answered by saying that this is the first time what he wrote is what we saw. In another question about whether he learned anything as a writer by directing the film, Black stated that he sort of didn't want to learn anything; he hoped he could still write without any of the logistical issues or limitations in mind when he sat down to write because that would edit his ideas and creativity.

So there you have it, a great movie followed by a pretty good Q&A. Thus ends night one of the Austin Film Festival. My ass is already sore from a double feature at the Paramount, with only seven more nights to go!
10.21.05The ApeJames FrancoI spent my second day of the 2005 Austin Film Festival in the ballroom-turned-theater at the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin hotel. A screen was set up with digital projection and dining table chairs were arranged to make rows, giving anyone who's ever attended a 300-slide presentation about the current state of their company instant chills. The only thing better than watching a movie on a really small low screen is watching a movie on a really small low screen with rows and rows of people in front of you. I really thought the days of scooting from side to side attempting to peek at a movie screen in between silhouetted bowling pin heads were over, but apparently no one told AFF that. Like they couldn't get another actual theater to screen these in? If I had paid for a badge or something, I'd be pissed.

Anyway, The Ape is a movie written and directed by Freaks and Geeks/Spider-Man/James Dean star James Franco. He wrote it together with Merriwether Williams (who is also writes on Spongebob Squarepants) originally as a play that they performed at Playhouse West in LA. It's a story about Harry Walker, who decides to move out on his wife and child in order to find the peace and seclusion needed to concentrate on becoming a writer and an artiste. The only problem is that there's a giant gorilla living in the ratty NYC studio apartment that he rents. He finds out after moving in and, thanks to an "UPKEEP OF APE" clause in the fine print of his lease, has to put up with the gorilla who's really just a man in suit. Not even a man in suit, more like man in gloves and mask. The mask is treated with no illusion of reality at all, even shooting angles where light comes through both eye-holes and the barely-moving mouthpiece flaps up and down randomly. Instead, The Ape talks to Harry, tries to become buddies with Harry, and even picks the lice out of Harry's hair after infesting him.

You might think this sounds like some sort of existential meditation along the lines of Beckett or Daniel Quinn, but it's really not. Instead, Franco plays Harry with such random levels of apathy, passion, and insanity that you're left with a fun but ultimately pretty simple movie. No deep thoughts here; instead there's a lot of "it's funny because he's an ape" jokes like seeing Franco splattered with thrown feces, hearing an ape swear like a sailor, and taking insult about his weight ("I'm svelte for my species!"). For some reason, Franco also dons a monkey-fur helmet for the last sequence of his film, truly descending into the madness that we all saw from the second scene. This doesn't mean it's a bad movie or anything, it's just very odd and I don't get a feeling that it knows exactly what it wants to be. There are a few really funny ideas in the film, including a dating website called "Rendez-Jew," that make the film enjoyable, but there are a few other scenes which bear the unmistakable mark of a play shot on film. If you are a fan of Franco or absurd humor with darker edges then you should check this film out.

After the film, James Franco (dressed up in a full suit and tie), Brian Lally (who played the titular Ape), and producer/actor Vince Jolivette came to the front of the room for a very brief Q&A.

-All three guys were part of the same Playhouse West theater company so the project came from there. According to Franco, he and Merriwether Williams had written about seven plays for the theater and this one, with its limited number of settings and characters, seemed to make the most sense to shoot first.

-The gorilla mask came from a previous play and Franco thought it was different from most ape masks in that it had a moving mouth and it sort of looked scary and funny at the same time. Edward Albee's Seascape was a definite influence on this project as far as its tone was concerned, since it deals with serious family issues yet has two characters dressed as sea monsters on the stage at the same time. Richard Yates' book Revolutionary Road was also an influence.

-Franco's inclination and interest in doing more than acting started on Freaks and Geeks, where he would follow a lot of the directors around and observe their work as well as constantly trying (and ultimately succeeding) to gain entry to Judd Apatow and Paul Fieg's writers' room. He's very happy with his acting career but said that sometimes he likes to be more involved after principle photography wraps, which leads him toward a more writer/director path.

And that was it, the audience was shuffled out to the second floor lobby where lines for Judd Apatow's presentation that was scheduled next. For those wondering about James Franco's demeanor, I'd say watch his Freaks and Geeks character but dress him in his Spider-Man character's wardrobe. He's soft-spoken and a bit hesitant to answer, but also quick to flash that weird semi-scary grin of his for way too long. Ultimately he came off as very polite but also aloof. It's cool he showed up.

The lines for Judd Apatow's presentation were much longer than for The Ape but I still managed to get in without an uber-expensive conference badge. For some reason, nobody sat in the first row so even though a good number of badge holders had already filled up a lot of the banquet chairs, I got what I thought was the best seat in the house. Not only was I close enough to the screen and had no one sitting in front of me, but Judd Apatow literally stood right in front of me when talking in between segments. Eye contact with him when he's less than a foot away is definitely different than eye contact from row 12.

On the menu tonight was some stuff taken from the upcoming DVD release of The 40 Year-Old Virgin and an unaired pilot that Judd did in 2000 just before Undeclared was broadcast. Judd mentioned that he was really just in town to interview Harold Ramis but they asked if he could show something as well so he thought he'd continue his current trend of getting people to come out to see his failures ("It's always good for about 100 people or so"). He introduced each bit and talked about them then took questions throughout the presentation, ending up at about 100 minutes of Apatow goodness. Here's the blow by blow.

First up, Judd warned us that he'd be showing stuff cut from 40 Year Old Virgin because it was too dirty. "There will be full frontal nudity," he told us. "I'm not kidding." He then talked about how make-over montages always suck so he didn't want to do that with Virgin but thought that showing a waxing scene would be funny. Foolishly, Steve Carell volunteered that he should just get waxed for real and they could film it. When they suggested that he trim up his hair since having it short makes it somewhat less painful, Carell stated that he wanted it to hurt as much as possible. He also mentioned that they shot a PA getting his nipple-hair waxed first to see how it would play on camera and could not stop laughing at dailies. With that, he presented "How we waxed Steve."

Expect all of this Virgin stuff to be on the DVD.

"How we waxed Steve" is a short assembly of behind-the-scenes footage, multi-angle split-screens, and finished film footage edited together to give a sense of how the waxing session actually went down. It starts with Carell talking to the camera telling us all "how much can it really hurt?" followed by rip after velcro rip of body hair removal that had the audience howling with laughter. There's lots of good stuff in here, including some incredibly sadistic shots of Apatow laughing at Carell's pain, Seth Rogen's list of clean/dirty shouted expletives for Carell to yell, and some glimpses into Apatow's improvisational directing style. It ends with Carell, soothing aloe-soaked bandages covering his chest, saying "that hurt more than I thought it would. That was a mistake."

Next up was "line-o-rama" which showcased Apatow's tendency to just throw dozens of jokes in a scene and pick the best one later. This sequence was made up of 5-8 alternate takes for each given sequence, hitting us with quick bit after bit for a few minutes. There's some really hilarious stuff in here, and afterward Apatow mentioned that it sucks for him to watch this with us because he hears big laughs that might have been better than what made the final cut. My personal favorite was when Paul Rudd, basically saying he doesn't like Matt Damon but think he's good in The Bourne Identity, referred to Damon as "Project Faglight." After this segment, Judd was asked if he always shoots with multiple cameras. Judd said he does like to do that whenever possible, especially in conversation scenes. He'll insist on shooting both sides of a dialogue with two cameras even though his DP sort of hates him for this because it makes the shots... not as pretty as they could be. Apatow admitted to be too lazy to worry about continuity and would rather capture one take that works. Hopefully, he said, you get a feeling of how people really talk that makes up for the ugly composition.

Next up was the pilot episode of "North Hollywood," a show he made because he couldn't cast Jason Segal as the lead in Undeclared. He explained that for a time in the year 2000, ABC wanted to reinvent themselves as the new Fox and was looking for edgier shows to renew their ratings. Then, somewhere along the way, some really soft show (Perhaps According to Jim or 8 Simple Rules...) did really well and ABC decided to base their whole network on equally soft shows, so when Apatow delivered this they were severely uninterested.

The show stars Jason Segal as a struggling actor living in a house shared with Kevin Hart (he was in Soul Plane and played the customer in 40 Year Old Virgin, he's the guy that sounds like a more understandable Chris Tucker(that's taken from a joke in this pilot by the way)) who's a struggling actor as well but also a stand-up comedian, and Amy Poehler who plays a personal assistant to Judge Reinhold as well as being, you guessed it, a struggling actor. They all share a house in North Hollywood, hence the title. Since this isn't likely to see the light of day anytime soon, what follows covers the plot of the show in fair detail. If you're not interested, skip down three paragraphs.

Right off the bat we get to see Segal in Frankenstein's Monster make-up terrorizing young children at Universal Studios. He quotes passages from Mary Shelly's book and gets reprimanded by his boss, played by Anchorman director and SNL writing alum Adam McKay. "You are basically a mannequin that moves. No emotion, no speaking, just stick out your hands and groan." Segal yearns to break free.

Meanwhile, Amy Poehler resolves to quit being Judge Reinhold's assistant and focus on her acting career. However, when she shows up at his house, we find Reinhold still in his pajamas laying face down on his couch watching Judge Wopner's Animal Court. A poster of Vice Versa adorns his wall. He's down and out because he just went to an audition where they were looking for a young Judge Reinhold and he didn't get it. He laments that he was the second choice for Splash but he lost out to Tom Hanks (Reinhold: "He's got willpower. He's quick. He's like a shark of niceness"). He's so pathetic that Poehler has to cheer him up and can't bring herself to quit. This later changes when Reinhold bugs her about getting his ringtone changed to the Beverly Hills Cop theme ("If Jamie Lee Curtis has Halloween, there has to be a way to make mine play Beverly Hills Cop! That song even sounds like it was written on a cell phone!"). She quits in frustration, leading Reinhold to show up at the house where Kevin Hart sells him on the idea of writing Beverly Hills Cop 4, starring Hart as Eddie Murphy's cousin Teddy.

Segal, as depressed as Reinhold was earlier, is convinced by Poehler to audition for this young Judge Reinhold part (he really DOES look like a young Judge Reinhold). To his surprise, he gets a callback. The next morning, Segal's splayed out on the bathroom floor with his head in the toilet. Both Poehler and Hart console him to get their own bathroom time and Segal plays the scene exceptionally well with a real bloody nose (Apatow: "We figured that using real blood worked for us so why not have Steve really get waxed?"). They finally get his hopes up only for him to show up to the callback reading against Colin Hanks. Hanks goes in to read for the part and returns with hugs and lots of laughter (Segal frantically flipping through the script pages: "I thought this was a drama, where is the joke?"). Segal goes in the room and we see that Jake Kasdan's playing the director. Segal makes a joke about Tom Hanks having sex with himself to make Colin which doesn't really go over well, but he ultimately gets a one-line job as a college student sitting on the steps of a dorm in Orange County. Throw in another subplot with a love interest for Segal, Amy Poehler tongue-kissing a really large dog who later humps Segal's leg while he tries to talk on the phone (makes you wonder about Poehler's true relationship with that dog), and you've pretty much have North Hollywood.

Apatow came up and said he doesn't know if it could be a series but it wasn't too excruciating for him to watch so that was good. He also said that apparently Jason Segal does get nervous nosebleeds because the copious amount of blood in that scene was all real. Another thing he mentioned was that Steve Gutenberg was his first choice to play the down-and-out actor role that Judge Reinhold filled out nicely. It was a pretty funny pilot and yet another crime against Apatow's deserved success.

Judd continued with another few segments cut from 40 Year Old Virgin, where Steve Carell's character tries to fantasize and masturbate but finds it hard (no pun intended) due to being so inexperienced. There's two takes of this sequence (both hilarious), one where adult actress Stormy Daniels is very explicit about her anatomy ("This is my left breast, this is my right breast. This is my vagina. It's just another body part, like my elbow. (Pointing)Elbow... vagina... elbow... vagina") which ultimately ends badly, then another sequence where Carell pauses his TiVo on an attractive newscaster and fantasizes about her undressing for him then really enjoying sex with him until the end where she says "Great, now I'm pregnant." Both got big laughs from the audiences.

For the last bit of footage of the night, Apatow played the uncut improvisation that Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd trade back and forth while they play video games that ultimately ends with the "know how I know you're gay?" sequence that appears in the final film. Afterward, Apatow mentioned that this basically tells him he doesn't have to write a script to make a movie (joking! Settle down, writers).

Apatow then took a few more questions:

-Seth Rogen, Sean Lambert and Brent White all (who both edited on Freaks and Geeks) all help Apatow decide which "best joke of the bunch" makes it into the final film, along with lots of test screenings.

-When asked about Film Schools, Apatow related his USC experience (dropping out after about a year), and said that although he tries not to give advice that will alter lives, his own experience mostly just hurt his confidence because it was basically a room full of people putting him down. He said that most of what he actually learned can be found on DVD commentary tracks, but maybe schools that have equipment to let students make films would be valuable. He also said that there were a lot of talented people in his class so that made it hard to compete with, like Matt Reeves, who would later create that show Felicity, going through Steven Spielberg's home movie footage to edit together movies for him at the time he was taking the class and Macy Gray, who, according to Apatow, did not do her homework very often.

-Apatow stated that the concept for The 40 Year Old Virgin came from Steve Carell and the project came together very quickly.

-When The Cable Guy was brought up, Judd said that he and Ben Stiller actually got together some time back and recorded a commentary track for it but the whole thing ended up being Stiller sounding sad and Apatow saying "I still think it's funny," so they decided not to release it. He also mentioned gathering extra scenes and stuff so the question of a Cable Guy Special Edition remains unanswered. Apatow's personal thoughts on the movie are that Carry perhaps plays too authentically dangerous and that it takes the viewer a good 3 or 4 viewings before figuring out that it's supposed to be funny, which perhaps isn't the best thing someone can say for a movie. It seems to him however that just as many people love the movie than hate it so that's cool with him.

-Asked about any possible ideas for season 2 of Freaks and Geeks, Judd said that they knew they were going to be cancelled very early on and actually shot the final episode toward the beginning so they could have a decent end to the series whenever NBC finally pulled the plug, but there were a few ideas floating around like Lindsay having a serious drug habit and taking a lot of LSD after touring with the Dead all summer, Samm Levine's parents going through a divorce, and the gym teacher marrying Bill's mom.

-Someone also asked about why the Undeclared episodes on the DVD seem to be out of order. Apatow answered that since Fox saw fit to almost immediately start airing episodes out of order for some completely illogical "research-driven" reason, he eventually got mixed up himself so what just seems out of order actually makes no sense.

-When asked if he would like to do another TV show, Judd said that TV is hard and they're mean to you. He then went into a bit about how, when Undeclared was cancelled by the same guy who cancelled The Ben Stiller Show, he went crazy enough to send a very explicit note of frustration which is generally not something you do with studio heads.

-The last question of the evening came from Harold Ramis, who sat in (along with James Franco) for the presentation. His question: "I noticed you had a dog humping in your pilot and also dogs humping in Virgin. Is that a theme?" Apatow's answer was that it's his idea of a mainstream joke, sort of like selling out. He knows that popular movies have dog-sex in them and it's sort of like fart jokes, how we should quit being snobs about it and just recognize that it's funny. He did mention that there are guys whose job it is to facilitate the dog humping, and he's got a huge table with different breeds diagrammed out and he presents the director with all the options of who will mount who but who won't touch each other; just another glimpse into the surreal life in the movie business.

With that, the night ended. Parasitic clouds of people swarmed around Franco, Apatow and Ramis out in the lobby. Poor guys, they practically have to bring out their mace just to get to the restroom. Stay tuned as tomorrow brings Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson together for a screening of Ghostbusters followed by The Matador with writer/director Richard Shepard in attendance.
10.22.05 GhostbustersIvan ReitmanDay Three of AFF: I forgot it's Saturday and arrived downtown ludicrously early for the screening of Ghostbusters with Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson in attendance. Showing at the Paramount, the insane lines around the block I experienced for Shopgirl a few nights ago were now a half dozen guys sitting on the sidewalk working on laptops. The theater filled up a bit though, with people filtering in even after it started. There was a similar occurrence yesterday for The Ape and a friend of mine mentioned the same thing for a movie he had seen. At this point, another few people come in five minutes late and sit right in front of us.

By now, everybody knows this film. You certainly don't need me to comment on it. I'll just say that it was great to see it up on the big screen again, and I noticed a moment for the first time (after they accidentally trash the maid's cart in the hotel, you can see her in the background trying to put a small fire out by spraying Windex at it). Comedy classic? Who knows, but people sure love it. During the end credits, a few people were even singing along, yelling out "Ghostbusters!" for all of us to enjoy.

Afterward, there was some Ghostbuster Q&A:

-Dan Aykroyd moment: When he made Blues Brothers he declined the merchandising stuff because he didn't want his face on every lunchbox in America. When he did Ghostbusters, he told Ramis, he did.

-Writerly "Message" of the film (according to Harold Ramis): We create our own monsters and nothing is more scary than our imagination but, with ingenuity, courage, committment, and a little help from your friends, there's nothing you can imagine that you can't confront and conquer.
-Ernie Hudson talked a bit about his experience on the film. He was very courteous and tactful, saying that the original script that he read was and is still fantastic, but there were some frustrations when the script changed. Ramis then gave us the dirt that Winston's part was originally much more of a presence with lots of great scenes, but as will happen on a movie, the larger, well-paid stars of the film start looking at the script and thinking "why don't I get these great scenes?" So a lot of Winston's stuff was lost to Bill & Danny's characters, leaving Hudson to come in on page 68 instead of 8.

This was also the movie where Ernie Hudson realized that instead of being rich & famous, you could be poor & popular.

-Slimer was based on the spirit of John Belushi: a slob that's funny but also a little scary at the same time.

-The original script and a lot of core ideas came from Dan Aykroyd, who's really into the ghost stuff in real life. In fact, he even used to have a Canadian TV show called Psi-Factor where he talked about and went in search of paranormal activity. Ramis also mentioned that Danny would go around talking about a lot of the little references his character made in real life, mentioning to friends "did you know that a patch of Russian wilderness was completely cleared in 1909 and nobody can explain it?" and things along that line.

-When asked about ad libbing on the set, Ramis said that what sounds spontaneous is probably written and what sounds written is probably improv'd. He then went into a distinction between ad libbing and improvisation, which is what most of those guys were trained in. "There's consultation, we talk it out before we shoot so it's not just a spur of the moment thing," but he also mentioned that with so many writers and directors in the cast, it was always pretty quick with changes and tweaks.

-Ramis is still friendly with Aykroyd but doesn't have very much interaction with Murray, who is apparently becoming more and more of a recluse. He's fired his agent, his lawyer, and now has an 800 number to call if you want to get in contact with him.

-As a last question, someone asked Ernie if there are any lines that he gets in public a lot that he's tired of and Hudson answered by saying he just did a play where the whole cast had at least 20 years experience in acting but none of them had done any film or TV work. He's been in the business for 40 years and some of his close actor friends have never been seen in anything, so to have the opportunity to be in a movie, especially one as culturally present as Ghostbusters, is really a treat he treasures every day. So when people come up to him and say "That's a big Twinkie" or "I've seen sh** that will turn you WHITE" he doesn't really mind at all.

As a final comment, Ramis threw in a conversation he had with William Atherton, who played the EPA scumbag in the film. He had lunch with Atherton not long after Ghostbusters was a hit and said "so isn't it great that it's becoming so popular?" Atherton replied "there was a whole bus of teenagers the other day and I heard one kid say 'Hey, Peck!' so I turned around and the entire bus yelled 'DICKLESS!'"

They also threw a Ghostbusters party complete with Egon drink, but I was much more interested in seeing the next film: The Matador.
10.22.05The MatadorRichard ShepardThe Matador is the story of a hitman (Pierce Brosnan in an absolutely electric performance) who's a little burned out and befriends a businessman (Greg Kinnear) in Mexico City and realizes that he's his only friend. The idea is somewhat done but this movie proves to be humorous, surprising, energetic, and intelligent enough to elevate a familiar premise to something extremely enjoyable. The writing is sharp and witty, filled with hilarious moments of surprise, discomfort, and depression. Perhaps the landmark iconic scene in the film, where Pierce Brosnan walks through a hotel lobby in his underwear and boots into a swimming pool, comes together with a near-perfect combination of music, direction, and Brosnan's performance. This is a real showcase role for Brosnan and he fills it tremendously well, making me think about what each one of his Bond movies could have been.

The reset of the cast fills the movie out nicely, Kinnear in good-acting mode rather than annoying-prick mode that he sometimes slips into with his typical characters, and Hope Davis bringing a lot to her role as the wife. After Kinnear and Brosnan meet for this intense few days down in Mexio City, the movie cuts to six months later where Kinnear has grown a brosnan-esque mustache and we see the effect of Brosnan's character on this one. It's a really cool line that threads through the second half of the film, that energy that somehow transfers when you meet someone exactly opposite of you. There's also a lot of tension in the film even though Shepard refuses to show us the traditionally tense moments in a hitman film. We already know all that stuff, we've seen important men taken out by sniper fire hundreds of times. Instead, he works on that audience knowledge to create tension on the possibility of those traditional moments rearing their ugly heads. Uh oh, two characters are talking in front of an open window, will a bullet come through there right before they divulge important information? The movie plays masterfully well with those ideas and keeps you engaged until the credits roll.

So in summation, I liked this movie a lot. It was great fun and I really hope it does well so the Broccoli family will see what they have wasted with what could have been the best Bond since Connery.

Ahem. Anyway, writer/director Richard Shepard was in attendance and supplied some As to Qs after the show:

-Shepard originally wrote the script after a project that he was working on fell through. It fell through so horrendously that his agent actually fired him. Out of frustration and angst, he wrote The Matador never really imagining that it would get sold. He had a main character that no actor in his right mind would want to play, a hitman movie with no hitman moments, and it was all about two grown men becoming friends. He was intending to shoot on digital for 20 grand. Pierce Brosnan's production company had an open call out for a writer on Thomas Crown Affair 2 so Shepard's new agent sent them this script as a writing sample but a few weeks later Shepard got a call from Pierce saying he'd like to star and produce this movie. From there, once Brosnan was attached, more actors started flocking and they actually had a budget so digital became 35mm and this little "screw you, Hollywood" project became an actual movie.

-When it became evident that they could get big actors to fill the other rolls, Shepard wrote Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis down as first choices.

-All the settings in the movie (Mexico City, Denver, Tuscon, Budapest, Manilla, among others) were shot in Mexico City. Casting and set dressing became a serious issue, as where are you going to find a brothel full of Thai hookers or snow to make Moscow and Denver seem cold in Mexico City? A lot of the dirty mangy extras were actually embassy staff.

-The costume designer, who'd previously worked on Kill Bill, came in with the idea of dressing Brosnan in clothes a half-size too small. This fit perfectly with Shepard's idea that Brosnan should be scruffy in this movie, with clothes that aren't perfectly tailored, some salt mixing with the pepper in his hair, a big mustache, and maybe even a bit of pot belly.

-Shepard was incredibly lucky to get sound editor Richard Hymns, who's worked on films such as Saving Private Ryan and Fight Club. Apparently, Richard read the script and called Shepard up, saying he'd just come off Catwoman which was such a piece of sh** that he'd like to work on something he actually liked. Hymns got paid scale to do this film.

-The cast stayed in the hotel where they shot. The hotel actually made a deal that they could screen their dailies there every night with an open bar. 20 movie guys coming in after a long day's work in the Mexico sun meant bad news for the bartender, so Shepard's pretty sure the hotel lost money on that but they were very nice and accommodating. For the scene where Brosnan walks through the lobby of the hotel, it wasn't planned but Shepard thought the lobby looked so great that they should use it somehow so he asked brosnan "How do you feel about walking through here in your underwear" and Brosnan asked back "can I wear my boots?"

-The shot that comes at the end of that scene, which got huge laughs from the audience, wasn't originally planned. That, along with several other things, was actually created in editing after casual small test screenings. The net effect of these changes was mostly to make it more humorous.

-In the beginning of the film, a Porsche blows up. To get the Porsche, Shepard said they had to drive one down from Texas, because Porsches in Mexico City just don't exist (they'd be carjacked in like 20 seconds). They could still barely afford to rent one for one day so it's just a shell that's actually blown up, although even then he only had one take for the explosion and it was on the first day of shooting AND it was with a Mexican stunt crew, none of whom spoke any English at all. Needless to say, Shepard was a bit nervous on his first day.

-When asked about Brosnan's character's sexuality, Shepard quoted Bowie, saying that he was "try-sexual. He'd try anything."

-This was the first script that Shepard wrote without an outline, not knowing how the story would end. At one point he had such bad writer's block that he put the script away and didn't pick it up for six months. When he did, he wrote "six months later" and went from there, which remains in the finished film. On writing in general however, he stated that he writes so that he can direct. He loves the entire process of movie-making and wants to be involved as much as he can.

Special thanks go out to the guy whose "question was really a 15-minute gush about how much he liked the movie and all the incredible insight he had into exactly why the movie was so good. We all respect your anonymous talent that much more and really only stuck around to hear you talk, not the writer/director.

The Q&A went a bit long so I really had to hurry to make the midnight movie, a film whose blurb was so bizarre that I could not miss it for the world.
10.22.05The Glamorous Life of Sachiko HanaiMitsuru MeikeAFF's only midnight showing is a Japanese film about a prostitute who's shot in the head and becomes supra-intelligent and somewhat psychic. A clone of George W. Bush's finger is also involved.

This is what's called a Pink Film in Japan. It's basically softcore porn that's shown in special theaters, usually only an hour long and shown in sets of three. This movie is also sort of a regular film though, with a plot (kind of), a social message, and some truly bizarre images. The mixture of the two creates a pretty interesting effect that, depending on your comfort level with sex, is either really fun or really offensive.

The majority of the Q&A with director Mitsuru Meike (more on this later) revolved around what exactly a Pink Film is. My personal take on it is something very similar to the sexploitation drive-in movies of the 70s. The sex is simulated (at least I think it is), and there's enough character and story to elevate it from hardcore porn but the effect is about the same... to have a good time with it and look at pretty girls.

This particular movie is just crazy. It's the only film I've seen at AFF so far that could maybe fit in at QT or FantasticFest. I mean, read the plot synopsis again. This girl gets SHOT IN THE HEAD. She spends the entire movie walking around with an open bullet wound in the middle of her forehead. She sticks stuff into the hole to get psychic feelings about them, and even ends up having sex with the guy that shot her. The bullet in her brain does wreak some havoc however. Aside from making her incredibly intelligent and able to absorb information and ideas at an astounding rate (a la Phenomenon), she has increasingly delayed sensations. She'll drink coffee that's sickeningly sweet and not taste it for a half hour, or have sex with someone and not get aroused until an onslaught of pleasure hits her at some inopportune time. Just imagine watching a movie like this.

The net effect is still watching a hot girl constantly writhing with pleasure, tearing the clothes off her body and having sex with every male member of the cast, but the idea behind it is great. She even has sex with a Ph.D. while spouting off about Noam Chomsky and Sandra Sonntag. The professor is so turned on that "Noam CHomsky" takes a pavlovian effect on him whenever he hears the name. Of course this is Japanese sexploitation though so certain staples of their culture still prevail (e.g. rape and excessive use of "money" in tactfully-composed money-shots).

So where does George W. Bush's finger come in? Well, it's stolen because it can arm the "Deus Ex Machina," a briefcase of random buttons and gears that's supposed to be a remote trigger for America's nuclear arsenal. The finger moves and talks however, floating or flopping along once outside of it's makeshift lipstick case and even managing to tunnel into Sachiko on a rooftop while a television set shows a guy with a cardboard George W. head affecting lude gestures with his hands. I guess you could call it a rape scene, but it's certainly the most creative rape on film that I've ever seen. The finger gives her knowledge of the nuclear trigger and lets her know where to go. The movie ends with a spectacular conclusion that I really hate to give away. I will just say to be sure to stay for the end credits because the movie manages to take from 2001 in some sort of bizarre epilogue that is too weird to be anything but cool.

The Q&A afterward was severely uncomfortable. The director had a few translators up there carrying on five-minute conversations before we would get an answer like "he was just saying that Pink Film used to have rape scenes all the time but not so much anymore, and that he doesn't think this rape scene fits in the movie but it's in there." Add to that a general dominance of people asking about Pink Film in general (what it is, what it's like, how culturally accepted it is), a misguided question about Takashi Miike coming from a guy clearly not seeing the movie he thought he was seeing, and a few general comments like "I think your message was hindered by the sex," and we were really only left with a few actual questions of the director.

-This was made around the time that the U.S. went to war with Iraq and, although a lot of people in Japan opposed the war, the Japanese government sided with Bush and went to war anyway, so there was a lot of resentment from some of the people. This is his 8th film and although this is sort of a mixture between Pink film and regular film, he's only done Pink films in the past. He hopes to segue into regular film though, and it's a pretty established path to go from working for a production company to directing pink films to directing regular films. He's using it as a stepping stone (to this, some guy mentioned that Eli Roth had to lower himself and do horror films in order to get an opportunity to do real films, like it's low or immoral to actually like doing horror. Jerkass).

The information in the above paragraph took about a half hour to get. It was still a fascinatingly odd film and I'm very glad I saw it, even if i had to ping-pong my head back and forth to read the subtitles between two heads in front of me. Damn Dobie.

Since I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to see this movie again, I just want to make sure that I remember that she uses Bush's finger to trigger a nuclear war at the end, then the bullet falls out of her forehead as she's walking along the beach with missiles coming down in the background. Then there's a shot of action figures in front of a backdrop moving around in complete Troma style, voices saying "help! no! we're all doomed!" dubbed in. It has to be one of the best scenes in the movie, totally friggin hilarious.
10.23.05 SeveranceTroy MillerDay Four of AFF. Sunday. I officially hate the pre-film short and cell phone message now, not even mentioning the way-too-long sponsors film. I guess I predicted I could last until tomorrow. Oh well.

The first show I saw today was Severance, a local-made film about following your dreams, living out your fantasies, and buying a white tux. More specifically, it's about Steve Saddleman, an aspiring writer who has a job in hi-tech but feels like he's wasting his life. He finds out that the girl he likes at work is seeing his prick of a program manager and freaks out in a client meeting. The company's instituting lay-offs anyway so they give him a chance to resign, offering a decent chunk as severance. Steve immediately accepts. From there, he follows his love of film noir heroes like Humphrey Bogart and starts being a private investigator. He buys a white tux and wears it everywhere, eventually getting in good with the girl from work (who's been laid off) and even getting a client. Of course, the whole thing descends into a noir mystery story with him getting double-crossed and robbed blind. His old company also goes bankrupt, killing half of his severance pay but in the end he manages to write his book and get a menial, albeit more pleasurable, job to pay the bills.

The first half of the film feels very much like a corporate IT version of Swingers. There's Steve hanging out with friends who try to get him to be more engaging and assertive, There's Steve's ladies-man friend trying to help him with women, and there they ending up in humorous situations because of it. Take all of that and throw in some white collar absurdity and you have what makes up the first half of this film. I must say that they did a great job in keeping the IT-speak authentic unlike TV shows like 24 where it seems the writers have never used a computer in their life. I've been in meetings very similar to the that shown in this film and part of me would love to go off the deep end like Steve; oh how sweet it would be.

The second half of the film becomes much more escapist fantasy. Steve hires a secretary straight out of the 40s, wears his white tux everywhere he goes, and does the whole inept private detective thing pretty well. You can feel the tone of the movie shift dramatically as Steve starts mimicking Bogart's machine-gun speaking rhythms and patois. The plot becomes more twisted and convoluted as we follow Steve on his case and try to figure out what's up. In perhaps the funniest scene of the film, Steve can't figure out how to work his camera to take pictures of an incriminating infidelity, so he whips out his sketchbook and later presents his client with crude (anatomically correct) stick-figure drawings of what he witnessed, playing the sketches off as firm evidence of a job well done.

The movie was shot on Ilford super16 black & white stock, creating a breezy fine-grain aesthetic that was unfortunately compromised by the digital projection in the theater. The effect they were going for is evident, but doesn't always come off perfectly. I hesitate to call this a bad film in any way, but if I'm to judge this on the same level as any other film, I would say it's a bit amateur. A lot of the actors could be a lot better and the story could be a tad more original, less reminiscent of other films. Other aspects of the film however are very impressive. The score, written, arranged, and conducted by local jazz musician Pat Murray, fills the movie with air and goes a long way in connecting the corporate-gripe first half with the noir-fantasy second. Lead actor/writer/director/producer Troy Miller does a good job for the most part as does his main buddy. Viewed in the context of local-made film, I'd say this was excellent. A precise budget wasn't given but I have to imagine that they did a tremendous amount with what they had, especially considering they shot on film rather than digital. I think there's real talent in here somewhere, so hopefully this will get noticed and give those involved an opportunity to make something with more money and better resources.

Afterward, a few of the producers and Troy Miller (wearing his white tux) came up for some Q&A. Troy fielded almost all of the questions:

-Everyone told them they were crazy to shoot on film, but they wanted to go for that noir look and found that Ilford, a British film maker, made a stock that gave a very unique brightness with fine grain that they liked. However, there are only one or two companies in the U.S. that carry Ilford stock so they had to really work to get all they needed. At one point, Troy said, all of the Ilford film in America was in town exposing on his movie.

-As far as influence and inspiration goes, most of the tech stuff came from real life (Troy had a hi-tech job before this. He now has a day job as a waiter at the Driskill Bar & Grill), but he's also loved Humphrey Bogart and film noir for a long time. He did go through a crash-course in Bogart films before shooting to get his performance down, but he's always been a fan of those movies.

-This is Miller’s first feature and it took three and a half years to make, from writing to final cut.

-A lot of the cast came from a local improvisation comedy group called The Heroes of Comedy.

-Miller's now working on two projects: one is a straight-up comedy and the other is a horror film.

-When asked what their biggest lesson learned while shooting this was, we got the following answers: 1. Get everything on paper. 2. Make sure you have enough money to finish shooting before you start. 3. Don't forget about post-production. 4. Don't shoot in August, it's really hot.

With that, the Q&A ended and I had to rush downtown to make what is for some the most heavily-anticipated screening of the festival.
10.23.05 BloodrayneUwe BollThere were plenty of seats at the Paramount to hold everyone that was looking forward to, mildly interested in, or morbidly curious about Uwe Boll's latest video-game movie Bloodrayne. Dr. Boll (PhD in literature, achieved while he was making unseccessful films in Germany) is infamous for his previous video game efforts Alone in the Dark and House of the Dead. I must confess to not seeing either of these, but when I was a part of a website that reviewed film trailers House of the Dead was unanimously voted Worst Trailer of the Year. From what I've heard from those who sat through the whole film, I consider myself lucky to only have watched 90 seconds worth.

The film is about a half-vampire/half-human named Rayne who wants to kill vampires. There's also a group called the Brimstone society which likes to kill vampires, but they're being killed off by this big powerful vampire that also happened to rape and kill Rayne's mother. Ben Kingsley plays this big baddie but basically all he does for the whole movie is sit in a throne and look bored. Will Sanderson plays a human who works for Ben Kingsley and apparently does all the work. I'm really not sure what makes Ben Kingsley so powerful because he really doesn't do much at all. Every line reading speaks more of "please let this week be over so I can go home and get paid" to me than "I am a super vampire that is really powerful." In fact, the vast majority of acting that goes on in this movie is pathetic, so much so that I almost don't want to mention it. Like, when you come across a three-legged dog, it'd be wrong to trip it, right? Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez, Kristanna Loken, Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier, Michael Pare, and Meat Loaf were all somehow in this, so it was interesting to see each of their differing methods of phoning in a performance. It really says something when Billy Zane gives the best performance in a movie.

What's there to say about Bloodrayne? It's a disappointment, not in the ways that you think an Uwe Boll film would be (like cutting to video game footage for every death or having random wire-frame guns spinning around in the background), but disappointing because it's not so bad that it's worth talking about. It's just a horrible boring movie. I guess it's supposed to be better than his previous two and Boll talked a lot about how bad the conditions were shooting in Romania but that doesn't make the film any better. The movie is really not worth talking about. Don't see it, it's bad, that's it. It reminded me a lot of the D&D movie a few years back.

However, Boll's stage presence and honesty in answering questions afterward made him come off as a very personable and fun guy. I still can't quite figure out if he thinks his movies are actually good or not, but he certainly doesn't shy away from saying that not everything he's worked on comes out perfect. Together with actor Will Sanderson, they took some Q&A after the screening:

-They shot entirely in Romania, which was tough because it's largely a mafia-run area right now so if you don't use one of the two production companies set up there, they shoot you. They also ended up using mafia-controlled prostitutes to populate Meat Loaf's harem of nymphs.

-Boll likes to cast at the very end of pre-production. He gave some reason like if you ask them right at the last second, they are more apt to say yes if they have a hole in their schedule. He also stated that he's pretty open with who gets cast, telling the agents "this is the part, if you've got John Malkovich that'd be nice but we'll see other people too." In Dr. Boll's opinion, who you've got playing the part isn't really important anyway when you have a genre picture as long as it's a recognizable name. In this case, he hired all of his actors two weeks before shooting started.

-Will Sanderson was very funny and uninhibited. When asked what his shooting experience was like, he started with "I was happy to go home." He also talked about how, with only two weeks of fight and horse training conducted by a Romanian crew who didn't really speak any English, all of the fight scenes were a real mess. Boll added that some of the stuntmen that showed up didn't match the stuntmen that they were told they'd be getting, and a lot of them weren't very good at all.

-Boll also mentioned that Madsen was constantly drunk and never in any real condition to get on a horse or fight with a sword.

-When asked about the writer, Guinevere Turner, Boll said that several writers came in and pitched for Bloodrayne but he liked hers the best. He thinks her script is great and that it's fast, really keeping the story moving which is important with this kind of picture.

-On the subject of video game films, Boll stated that he's made other kinds of films in the past and originally did not want to do House of the Dead because the script was terrible. He said that he still didn't like the script even after accepting so a lot of the dialogue in that movie got cut. Unfortunately (both for him and for us), although the movies don't necessarily do well in theaters, they happen to make a lot in DVD sales. Since he has private investors who expect returns, he's kind of stuck doing video game movies right now because they keep making money.

-When he options the rights to a particular franchise, the game company usually sends over all the background information as well as character bibles and things of that nature. He does play the games but most of the time the stories are only equivalent to one act. They set up characters but a game usually doesn't have enough substance to carry a complete arc so he has to expand. It's a constant battle between fans of the video game and people who don't know anything about it, so he says he tries his best to stay right in the middle because leaning too far to one side would alienate the other.

-When asked about why Boll seems to be bearing the brunt of Internet hatred, Boll answered with "yes, stop. Please, stop." He then went into a thing about how video game and horror film fans are also the people most active on the Internet and the most vocal, about how it may be a vocal minority type thing, then Will Sanderson threw in "Yeah, but he's also fun to hate." They then mentioned the secret stash of Nazi gold that Boll uses to make his films, which got pretty big laughs from the audience.

So there you have it. I know he's supposed to be crazy and mean but he seemed pretty nice and easy tonight. That doesn't mean you should go see his movie though, don't even rent it.
10.24.05The SistersArthur Allan SeidelmanThe Regal Arbor hosted me for a double feature on this chilly day five of the Austin Film Festival. Not having to scrounge for parking was nice but I have to tell you that sitting in comfortable seats was even nicer. Now if only I could chow down on more than popcorn and soda... Oh Alamo Drafthouse, how I am missing you.

The first film I saw tonight was The Sisters, adapted from Richard Alferi's play which in turn was "suggested by" Chekov's Three Sisters: a classic of the theater produced innumerable times. To me, most movies based on plays are completely different animals than your average original screenplay or book adaptation. I feel drawn to mention, for the sake of anyone reading this, that my personal tastes shy away from most play-turned-films. I tend to find them tiresome with all that concentrated time spent in one place with characters talking to each other in ways that I never hear on the street. Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule, but if you've seen a few of these types of movies, I bet you know what I mean.

The Sisters fits very much into that mold. Yes it has a solid cast and yes the performances are powerful but I found myself borderline detached throughout the movie. Many people in the audience really loved the formality of the dialogue but I found it to be stilted and unrealistic. Again, I believe this to be an issue of taste so please bear that in mind.

At its core, The Sisters is about one family of siblings dealing with their paternal relationship each in a different way. Although it was originally entitled Three Sisters, there's also a brother as well as several significant others and co-workers rounding out the cast, each given their moment to shine with a meaty monologue in what seems like a sea of constant bickering and argument. Some time passes and the sisters sort of deal a tiny bit with their issues, most of the characters have their little arc, then the movie's over. It's a movie about confrontation, defense mechanisms, and verbal abuse. Maria Bello indulges in the latter with the most zeal, looking as hot as always while lashing out to anyone that will listen. Mary Stuart Masterson, Erika Christenson, Chris O'Donnell, Eric McCormack, Tony Goldwyn, Steven Culp, Alessandro Nivola, and Elizabeth Banks fill the other roles nicely, each with tons of dialogue filled with big words that I’m sure was a pain to memorize. Oh yeah, Rip Torn also has a part, although his accent is so vague I have no idea where he's supposed to be from. I have it down to either the south or Russia.

I can't call the movie bad. It kept me at least interested, I didn't walk out and I fully recognize that everyone around me enjoyed it a lot more than I did, but you know... Sweet Smell of Success had just as formal dialogue in just as much abundance but it still managed to feel like a film. There's a term used a lot with play-turned-movies: "Open it up." In the theater, the more economical you can write in terms of setting and number of characters, the less hassle it is to actually produce the thing. I've seen very few films (Twelve Angry Men comes to mind) that manage to spend over an hour in one room and keep it interesting. Due to thematic and story limitations in this particular case, almost every conversation is forced to happen either in a faculty lounge or a hospital waiting room. I yearn to be free. Open it up.

Anyway, enough of my griping about the film which I'm sure most people will praise. On to the Q&A! The director Arthur Allen Seidelman and actress Mary Stuart Masterson were both there to talk about the film and they mentioned lots of interested things:

-One of the big changes that Richard Alferi made to Chekov's play was to change the settings from the characters being in a small town in the Russian landscape yearning to return to Moscow to the characters being in New York City yearning to return to humble Charleston. He felt that the change made the play more contemporary since most of us tend to move toward big cities when we grow into adulthood rather than away from them. Seidelman directed the play at the Pasadena Playhouse when it was first written.

-The film was shot entirely in Eugene, Oregon in April and May of 2004 with a budget under 5 million. The cast had a week of rehearsal time which Masterson feels was very important in creating relationships with the other actors.

-Masterson noted that in a play there's always an ensemble camaraderie with the other actors but not so for some films. In this case however, everyone got along great and there were no egos or anything of that nature. Everyone got paid the same (Seidelman: "Very little").

-When asked what techniques he used to translate the play into a film, Seidelman mentioned using the camera to communicate certain emotions visually while other characters were talking. He said that the camera always serves the actors, never the other way around.

-Seidelman was asked how he prepared for the job and if he ever had to rein the actors in to which he responded "the reins should never fall from the director's hands." The job of each person working on a movie is to provide a piece of the puzzle and a director's job is to keep track of all those pieces and make sure he has a completed picture at the end, so it's essentially his job to "direct" the actors toward a desired shape and size that will fit with the rest of the puzzle. As for preparation goes, he said he went in every day with a plan but was free enough to change it.

-Someone asked Masterson about her tendency to play strong female characters and where that came from. Masterson related a bit of information about her parents (both accomplished actors) and that her mother was a real activist for a while. Apparently they both did a Geritol commercial to pay a few bills and Masterson’s mom had to live with her dad saying "My wife, I think I'll keep her" at the end of it. Mostly however, Masterson believes that strength of character mostly comes from the writing and that she's just happened to be chosen for these strong characters. She added that she's played a few weaker characters as well.

-Masterson also noted that a while back she did a stage production of Three Sisters playing the role of Irene (played by Erika Christensen in this film), and her overriding thought was that the play felt like each character was in her own world. This film, to her, felt like they were all in the same universe.

-Talking about the language in the film, Seidelman said there were very few changes made to the script during production. He personally thinks that our cinema has become language-poor, and although the formality of the language may be unfamiliar, he loves it and thought it important to keep. Also, he noted, the sisters use language as weapons and shields; it's the words that they hide behind while cocooned in the womb-like comfort of the faculty lounge, so the language was important in that regard as well.

With that, they had to clear the theater for the next show, which was already 20 minutes late.
10.24.05 Special Thanks to Roy LondonChristopher MongerThe second show at the Arbor tonight was a documentary titled Special Thanks to Roy London: an acting coach who proved life-changing importance to the likes of Sharon Stone, Brad Pitt, Garry Shandling, Sherilyn Fenn, Jeff Goldblum, and many many others. There are only a few pictures of the man and just two interviews where he talks about acting, so the vast majority of this doc intercuts that footage with a host of actor interviews of those that worked with him, outlining his personal history, a little bit of his teachings, and ultimately his death at age 50.

Just as I am not a fan of plays turned into movies, I am a sucker for movie-related documentaries. I just eat them up. The complete movie fanboy in me breaks through whenever I see celebrities talking about other celebrities. Who's friends with who, how such and such came about, what's responsible for what... it all fascinates me to no end. So it's no big surprise that I found this documentary very interesting.

The movie starts with everyone trying to describe London's physical characteristics, sometimes agreeing but mostly directly contradicting one another. It seems no one saw Roy London quite the same way. We then see a picture of him, dispelling the myth that the film just built up, and we go on from there in typical documentary fashion. We start at the beginning of his career as a stage actor and sometime writer, then move on to him coming out to LA and starting teaching, then discussing what his lessons were and how he helped a whole wave of actresses break through in the early 90s, and ultimately end with his death. It's the type of movie that you will either be interested in or bored with right from the beginning, and your feelings probably won't change midway through.

There are some faults with the construction of the film though. A full third of the movie concentrated on London's death from AIDS, orchestrating this huge tear-fest specifically designed to make you cry. Personally, I'm more interested in the man's life than his death and felt this segment went on way too long. There are a few gems though, such as Sharon Stone describing a scene where she was holding London in his arms and he seemingly died, causing great joy in Stone because she had been the one he dies with, only to feel mixed frustration and joy when he wakes up with a huge gasp and one last epiphany on the craft: "It's all about love."

London condensed all scenes in every film down to being about love, power, death, or money... gradually dropping money then death as he went through life and finally power as he neared his own end. A lot of this stuff is very actor-y which I found fascinating because the actor's job is so odd. I can understand however that, put in the context of a greater worldview, such trivial things as an actor's motivation could be seen as minor and unimportant. The film makes no apologies for treating acting as one of the great arts though, so you either accept it and enjoy or deny it and leave.

All in all, it's a decent movie uncovering another layer in the gigantic onion that is the movie business. I also think this is the first film I’ve seen at AFF this year with no Q&A afterward. It felt really weird to not have a page of notes for this movie.
10.25.05 Winter PassingAdam RappAhh day six: that point where the novelty and excitement of attending a film festival gives way to marathon endurance and a growing realization that it will all soon be over.

Tonight I started with Winter Passing starring Zooey Deschanel, Ed Harris, and Will Ferrell and playing at the IMAX theater here in Austin. Several rumors had spread concerning films shown in this theater for the festival. Word had it that they showed one movie here on DVD last night. I'm sure if theaters were alive this one would be crying alone in a corner somewhere. It hardly gets to show anything besides Texas history documentaries and Stomp! films as it is, so to finally have a chance to see something worthwhile here and have it be a DVD projected into the middle of the gigantic screen is a real shame. The troubles don't end there however. Winter Passing, either from a bad print, mis-configured settings, or inept projectionists, spent half its time sputtering out droning helicopter machine-gun jackhammer noise pollution at us in the audience, sometimes cutting out to mono or dropping to a whisper. It'd be one thing if this was a fantastic movie that excelled even with the crappy sound, but to be honest this movie needed all the help it could get and truly suffered because of the sub-par presentation.

Winter Passing tells the story of Reese Holden (Zooey Deschanel), daughter to extremely successful and "important" writer parents, whose mom has just died. She's currently disconnected from her family, living in NYC acting in off-Broadway theater, doing coke with grungy guys in dingy bar bathrooms, indiscriminately sleeping with men, and slamming her hand in dresser drawers (presumably just to feel something because her life is so full of woe). A book agent approaches her with a generous offer for a series of love letters written between her parents long ago. Tempted by the money, she agrees to go back to her childhood home in Michigan and retrieve the letters for publication. Upon arrival, she finds her father Don (Ed Harris wearing a great hermit wig) living full-time in the garage, drinking himself into insanity and death. In the house, Will Ferrell and Amelia Warner play characters who nurse/aid Don with stuff like walking and eating. Will Ferrell plays Corbit, a guy who's a bit slow, either for medical reasons or just because it's funny, and Amelia Warner plays Shelly, a 23-year old hottie basically just like Katie Holmes' character in Wonder Boys except with medical problems.

The movie has your typical acoustic-folk hand-held de-saturated soggy autumnal Michigan depressio indie feel, complete with bad haircuts, overcast skylines, and dreary mornings. Winter passing is a not-nearly-as-good Wonder Boys mixed with a Bizarro-world Elf; A Jesus' Son without the charm. Granted the film does have a few moments (most coming from Ferrell's innate comedic timing), it's not completely horrible, but I found it to dip into morose melancholia a bit too much. At least it didn't feel like a play.
10.25.05 Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull StoryMichael WinterbottomDown to the Paramount again to catch Michael Winterbottom's latest, I sat watching people come in at the last second (there's a regular crew of them that are prone to this; I'm recognizing faces at this point) and realized that I wasn't sure what this movie was about or if it'll be any good at all. Each summary I had read of this sounded like descriptions of completely different movies; the only hope I held onto was that Winterbottom, who's consistently impressed me in the past, would take me somewhere I'd like to go.

Tristram Shandy is a movie based on the classic book The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. The Quixotian deluge of tangents, digressions, and absurdist comedy is said to be unfilmable (as the film addresses). There are so many stories in its 720 pages that one could make virtually any genre of film from it, simultaneously remaining true and hacking to pieces the original material. So how does Winterbottom handle it? He takes a wonderfully meta approach, stepping in and out of the story at whim and letting the cast play versions of themselves as well as period characters, somehow managing to keep the whole thing from deliriously falling apart. This film feels like what Soderbergh's Full Frontal attempted to be. The films strength comes not only from the insanity and comedy of seeing behind the scenes of a film production but also in thematic ties between Steve Coogan as Shandy and Steve Coogan as himself.

Each description I've read of this film is true and also completely different from every other. The film succeeds in bringing the novel's sense of pattern through the chaos translated to that of the film adaptation process itself (presumably. Not like I've read it or anything). As we watch this glorious mess splay out in every which way as the narrative literally stops and falls into the bottomless pit of documentary, observing the production undergo budgetary troubles, rewrites, media attention, etc., we begin to see similarities between the story they're trying to tell and the story we are being shown. Coogan argues that if only Walter Shandy could be seen holding his baby, all of his unsympathetic traits would be forgiven by the audience. Meanwhile, playing a caricaturized insecure actor protrayal of himself, Coogan constantly undermines his co-workers, flirts outside of his relationship with Kelly MacDonald, and drinks like a fish. yet, when we see him change his baby's diaper in a moment of quiet solitude, all is forgiven.

The film remains coherent through all of this and ultimately returns to Shandy's world for a very fitting ending. Describing itself as a story about a cock and a bull, Tristram Shandy is really a masterfully told story and well worth seeing for any that have the opportunity.
10.27.05The Squid and the WhaleNoah BaumbachClosing night: Sad at not seeing any more movies, happy to get bad to real life and better theaters. Tonight they scheduled the movie I was looking most forward to such that it would run over all the second shows. It's for the best, I suppose. I'd hate to go from a movie I liked as much as The Squid and the Whale to some flick that sucks and have that be my final AFF experience. Best to just leave it with this:

The Squid and the Whale is about a family undergoing divorce in mid-80s NYC. The focus of the story is Walter (played by Jesse Eisenberg who a lot of you might recognize from Cursed but was also in The Village and Roger Dodger), the teenaged son of the family, as he deals with adjusting to this new situation. Whereas Walter sides with his Father (Jeff Daniels in a really great role), younger brother Frank (played by Owen Kline, son of actors Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline) sides more with their mother (another consistently good Laura Linney performance) although both children exhibit lashing-out behavior that we get to see in all its awkward uncomfortable glory. Filling out the cast is Anna Paquin as one of Daniels' grad students and perhaps a career-reviving performance by William Baldwin as a burnt-out tennis pro who calls everyone "Brother."

Although the subject matter is painful and depressing, the movie has charm enough and finds humor in the minutiae to elevate it above something like Winter Passing into a realm closer to Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore, perhaps no accident due to Baumbach's current proximity to Wes Anderson. I was personally a bit worried that this film would follow the highbrow intellectual ennui of Baumbach's previous films but maybe spending some time with Anderson and his surreal familial drama has helped him to move on, ultimately yeilding a much more mature film than both Mr. Jealousy or Kicking and Screaming (I haven't seen Highball). It's still populated in a world where the most biting insult is calling someone a "philistine" but the film never gets caught up in its wit or mistakes its importance as anything more than personification of these particular characters. There are great moments here of growing up, seeing your parents as humans with flaws, understanding mistakes as you make them, and several other staple coming-of-age ideas that sound overdone and boring but really aren't in this movie. I mean where else are you going to see semen smeared on school library books? Don't answer that.

So yeah, this is a film worth seeing for sure.

Afterward, actor Jeff Daniels came out for a very candid and rewarding Q&A:

-First off, the actor seemed very comfortable up on stage and welcomed all questions openly and honestly. Hearing him talk about acting and his job gave me a feeling of maybe what it would be like to be there for an Inside the Actor's Studio session or something before Lipton became a self-parody and called people like Rob Schneider brilliant. It was pretty cool.

-In the film, Daniels' character (Bernard) is very unsympathetic. He doesn't apologize for his actions and what's more he never changes. He is who he is right from the start and never strays as the film unfolds. When asked how he got to that place, Daniels explained that the main concept behind Bernard is that he doesn't know his life is unraveling. He sees himself completely as the victim and that he's already done everything he possibly can, and a general feeling of under-appreciation amped up to the Nth degree fuels his every action. Daniels explained that he lives in Michigan and has written around 10 plays for his theater company there so he had an inkling of what Bernard must feel, which is a severe lack of attention that he feels he deserves. So, Daniels said, he just doused that with gasoline and lit the match and he was there.

-He said the part was very complex, difficult and challenging; very unsympathetic, painful and tragic yet also very funny. He met with writer/director Noah Baumbach after reading the script and Noah mentioned that he was the first person to see the humor there. Apparently, the part had gone out to a few different people who had turned it down because it's too unsympathetic, and was out to one actor who was taking his sweet time getting back with an answer when Daniels read the script. In essence, he "stole" the part by getting a lunch with Noah and really impressing upon him his willingness to do it. He mentioned that there was a small period of sizing up where he could feel Baumbach looking at him and thinking "can this Dumb and Dumber guy really pull this off?" but ultimately he won him over and got the part.

-Daniels' main thought about Bernard is that he never gets a pet-the-dog scene. In most films, usually toward the end, you see the unsympathetic character sort of break down and acknowledge that he's a bastard and pet the dog, thereby gaining sympathy with the audience. Daniels mentioned that that's why several actors passed on the part and also why he was so interested in it (Daniels: "Cruise has that scene in every goddamn movie he does! He Does!!"), so for him it was really refreshing to play a guy who just is who he is. The conflict in the story is with Walter, not Bernard, so Bernard can just be Bernard and it's up to Walter to deal with that.

-At that first lunch meeting, Baumbach told Daniels that the script was very autobiographical and that the part of Bernard is based on his father, famous critic Jonathan Baumbach, who is alive and well. Through the course of preparation, Daniels met Jonathan and could directly see where some of the "writerly" phrases like "an elegant block" and "the filet of the neighborhood" came from. He said that Jonathan would throw out a word here or there that was very unusual and get a little glint in his eye, sort of testing to see if Daniels would catch it or not: all mental fodder for character filed into Daniels' brain. Daniels also mentioned that Jonathan Baumbach's writing is indeed very dense.

-The problem came afterward during rehearsal when he felt he was stuck in imitation/mimic mode with Noah's dad. He had to really talk it out with Noah and personalize it to get beyond the mimicry into the real spirit and soul of the character, which was the big challenge for him. That's where the whole underappreciation thing came in and he was off and running. Daniels said that this was the main difference between independant film and studio projects. Here it was just he and Noah sitting in a room hammering it out. There weren't 20 producers on cell phones all saying "it isn't working, it isn't working!" to one another in increasingly frantic tones.

-They had two weeks of unpaid rehearsal before shooting, which Daniels was very grateful for. "You can make a lot of mistakes and not have to pay for them," he said with regards to the relatively cheap expense of rehearsal time versus the every-second-counts crunch of being on set with equipment rented and crew standing around. The movie was shot in 23 days (July/August 2004) in Brooklyn for 1.5 million dollars (Daniels: "Basically a buck and a half") which i personally find really amazing.

-"I'm the guy they call when they have to deal with kids AND animals." Daniels describes working with children and young actors as a constant battle. The most important thing to do with them is to establish trust and get them comfortable enough to shed all the nervous energy of a child actor and arrive in a place where it's NAR: No Acting Required. Really the only way to do that is to spend enough time with them so they know that in the midst of all the craziness going on, they can look to you as a source of trust and safety. You do that, Daniels says, by just spending tons of time with them, talking about things they're interested in, and making that transition so smooth that by the time you get around to the script, they're treating it just like any other subject. He mentioned that Laura Linney did the same kind of thing with both Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg, which is how the four of them got close enough to act like a real family in two weeks. Because of this rehearsal time, they hit the ground running because all of the problems normally had during the first week of shooting had already come up and been dealt with. He advises any independant filmmaker out there to stress the importance of rehearsal. Treat it like the theater, which uses it religiously.

-Someone asked about what kind of preparation 12 year-old Owen Kline went through to do all the uncomfortable and embarrassing stuff that he had to do in the film and Daniels answered pretty candidly by saying that he didn't really care. Acting is big time and if Owen couldn't do it they would get someone who could. He then said that both Phoebe and Kevin talked a lot with him in preparation and the big trick in acting at any age was to not judge the character. You may do things as that character that you wouldn't or couldn't ever do as a person but that's the character on the page and it's your job to bring him to life. He also said that it was important to supply them with positive-yet-vague reinforcement after the scene, like saying "hey I heard your scenes went well yesterday, good job! Want some ice cream?" Not speaking about it in specifics to bring up anything potentially embarrassing but letting him know that he was doing a good job.

That said, when asked if it was weird that he had to kiss and feel up Anna Paquin, Daniels answered "yeah, that was weird. We never really talked about it." Daniels played Paquin's father in Fly Away Home so it probably was pretty... uncomfortable, but he told a great story about how when they were setting up for their first kiss, he looked out the window and asked Paquin if she saw any geese. She said no and he yelled "Rolling!"

-Someone also asked about the circa-2004 cars on the streets in supposedly 1986 period. To that, Daniels said that they could only afford five period cars (one of which belonged to the 1st AD) so they tried to use them as much as they could but they just didn't have the money to keep those pesky SUVs out.

-Another person asked if they shot the movie in sequence, to which Daniels explained the whole process of how, in most cases with films, they shoot by location since that's usually the most limiting aspect of scheduling a film production. Therefore, you shoot completely out of sequence just because you have to get everything at location A shot while you can then you move on and get everything at location B and so forth. He said that's where working in the theater really helps actors because you need to have a firm grasp of where your character is emotionally at every step of the picture so you can dial it up or down and have it come off as consistent in the finished piece. With plays, everything's sequential so it's easier to feel that scale incrementally.

-For the record, Jeff Daniels does not play tennis, but considers himself an excellent high school athlete. Besides, he mentioned, Bernard wasn't supposed to be too good anyway so he thought he fit the role pretty well. it was Billy Baldwin that had to act like he knew what he was doing.

-To end the night, someone asked Daniels if he's heard Noah's father's reaction to the film, since Noah mentioned that he never showed him the script. According to Daniels, Noah's dad Jonathan came up to his son after he first saw it and said "I'm very unsympathetic." Noah tried to comfort him a bit, saying stuff like "no... I don't think so. Some people even like you!" and Jonathan answered "No, I'm very unsympathetic. But I'm also very proud of you."

With that, a huge "awwww" swept the crowd and they wrapped up our time with Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale, and the 2005 Austin Film Festival, leading us out of the Paramount theater into the October night. Luckily for me, There's a pair of Alamo events scheduled for the weekend to keep the energy rolling. Back to the Alamo, back to my netflix, back to dreaming of Kier-la.