"Johnny Depp! Johnny Depp will be in town!" When Austin Film Festival announced the recipient of its first Extraordinary Contribution to Film in Acting award, I wasn't the only one worried that the celebrity and swarms of his fans could throw off the balance of a festival that focuses on programming films with good writing, and introducing many independent movies from new filmmakers. James Franco was also going to be at the fest to screen his film Sal.
However, the Depp mania turned out to be mostly localized, and it was pleasant to see screenings programmed against the celebrity-attended events also drawing large audiences. AFF did a great job of balancing celebrity sparkle with a mix of good film and conference programming. Here are some of the notable movies I saw during the first half of the fest.
Austin Film Festival's programming often places a strong emphasis on good writing, working hand-in-hand with the festival's Screenwriters Conference. This was evident with this year's opening-night film: Butter, a sharply written satire that seems to be about Midwesterners obsessed with sculpting in butter, but might be a metaphor for the 2008 U.S. Presidential election. Screenwriter Jason A. Micallef was in attendance ... and from the audience's enthusiastic applause and questioning, you'd have thought he was a major celebrity.
Butter, which premiered earlier this year at Telluride Film Festival, stars Jennifer Garner as a devoted wife and stepmom whose husband (played by Ty Burrell) is a champion butter sculptor. You should see his life-sized Last Supper. When he's persuaded to stop competing in state championships, she's determined to take his place and keep the family reputation, despite having no artistic leanings. Her competition turns out to be an eight-year-old artist, Destiny (Yara Shahidi), who surprises her liberal/yuppie foster parents with her butter-sculpting ambitions.
Political parallels aside, Butter is a sly comedy in the same vein as Election, with a cast that manages to play their roles straight … and beautifully. Garner elicits comparisons with the original Mama Grizzly without ever resorting to actual mimicking. Rob Corddry, as Destiny's foster dad, is not only amusing but also downright sweet. Olivia Wilde is electrifying as mercenary stripper Brooke, a walking streak of sex, and Hugh Jackman is nearly unrecognizable as a used-car salesman. The story runs along fairly predictable lines, but the humor is still effective.
You Hurt My Feelings
It was almost a shock to follow up Butter later that night with the drama You Hurt My Feelings, the latest film from Steve Collins (Gretchen), although both movies did feature adorably funny little girls. Collins' daughter Lily, age three, loudly expresses all the emotions that the adult characters can't communicate. In fact, the movie has very little conversation -- even when the grown-ups talk, it's one-sided and often unrevealing.
John (John Merriman) is Lily's nanny, whose face says it all, immediately revealing his emotional state. His girlfriend Courtney (Courtney Davis) has left him and is taking up with Macon (Macon Blair), who bears a strong resemblance to John but is rather chattier. You Hurt My Feelings follows the love triangle and the orbiting little girls (Lily and her real-life baby sister Violet) throughout a year in Connecticut, from winter to winter, emotions rising and falling with the seasons. One of the movie's most beautiful sequences is an Easter egg hunt, culminating in a lovely and funny shot of toddler Violet trying to pick up a jellybean in the grass.
You Hurt My Feelings is not an easy film to settle down and like, with many plot points deliberately made ambiguous, but ultimately rewarding.
Cinema Is Everywhere
Another deliberately paced film at AFF this year was Cinema Is Everywhere, from first-time director Teal Greyhavens, making its U.S. premiere at the fest. The documentary expounds on the theme in its title, focusing on several storylines in different locations around the world. In China, young filmmakers deal with typical production issues as they meticulously shoot a short film for the Hong Kong Film Festival. In Tunisia, a documentarian prepares for the premiere of his first movie at the Tunisia Film Festival. In India, an actress/model tries to jump-start a filmmaking career. And in Scotland, Tilda Swinton and film-festival veteran Mark Cousins launch their Cinema of Dreams projects to redefine the moviegoing experience.
The stories told in Cinema Is Everywhere are fascinating, but they're interspersed with interviews from various filmmakers and film scholars on the topic of "What Is Cinema?" that are often cliched and redundant, and cause the pacing to drag. I did like one sequence showing us projectionists and projection booths around the world. Also, the timelines are all different -- Swinton and Cousins' projects span years, but the Tunisian storyline takes place over only a few weeks, so it's a little confusing. I would have preferred watching the stories one-by-one as if they were short films, perhaps bookended with Swinton and Cousins' memorable endeavors, and with fewer scholarly interludes.
Age of Champions
Tell me a film is about the triumph of the human spirit and I usually find something else to watch, and if you mention "uplifting" I leave the room. Age of Champions, a documentary about participants in the Senior Olympics, sounds like a movie I'd skip in favor of a zombie comedy. However, filmmaker Christopher Rufo manages the difficult feat of keeping the movie respectful to its subjects and avoiding sticky sentiment.
The men and women pursuing athletic feats in Age of Champions range from a 100-year-old tennis player in New England to an 88-year-old swimmer fighting colorectal cancer to a pair of Texans competiting in track-and-field. I especially liked the south Louisiana team over-65 women basketball players who have a reputation for being ruthless on the court, yet still have their own team stylist who makes sure their hair and nails are perfect before each game.
The inspirational message here is obvious and the filmmakers are smart never to push it too hard: Age doesn't stop active people from doing what they love, and if we're lucky that could be us in a few decades. The film occasionally slips into the "Aren't these old people cute?" mode but it's almost accidental, and its general tone makes these slips forgivable. Age of Champions is a documentary I could show my relatives, from pre-teen nieces and nephews to my jaded siblings to my over-65 parents, and everyone would like it. How often can you say that about a documentary?