One of my favorite aspects of film festivals is that they are usually gatherings of film enthusiasts as well as filmmakers. At the Austin Film Festival (AFF), the twist is that a great many of the attendees are writers, most of the panels and sessions are geared toward writers and writing, and AFF itself is known as “The Writer’s Festival”.
Writers, especially screenwriters, are an interesting bunch. When standing next to one in line, they’ll first try and ascertain if you are also a screenwriter, and if you are, the conversation will be guarded (they don’t want you stealing their ideas) with just a touch of hostility. If you aren’t a writer, whoo boy look out. They want to tell you all about their idea. What do you think? Isn’t it good? Would you see it? It’s kind of like such and such movie that came out awhile back, but not too much, right? Still incredibly original and brilliant, yes? And after screenings, instead of hearing people talk about whether the film was simply good or not, or if they enjoyed it, you’ll hear I would have done it like this, or sometimes total dismay generated by similarities between the film being screened and whatever they’re writing. This was the case when I saw Not Fade Away, a drama set in the ‘60s about a group of New Jersey teenagers who start a rock and roll band. In line, I heard the guy behind me saying how he was writing a period rock and roll film, and his periodical declarations of “oh shiiiit” during the movie led me to believe he may be changing his plotlines a bit.
When I first read the press release for James Franco’s new film, I thought it was a joke: “James Franco will be in attendance at the Festival with Francophrenia, his mini-thriller comprised of footage from his appearances on General Hospital.” It starts out as a documentary, based around a special episode of General Hospital, filmed at the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles. This episode was centered around Franco’s character (whose name happens to be Franco), an artist and crazed murderer. The cameras follow Franco around signing autographs, getting ready in his trailer, shooting scenes, and then about fifteen minutes in, a whispering voice is heard, and it’s all downhill from there.
The idea is that Francophrenia is Franco struggling to differentiate between real life and his character’s life on the show – because they have the same name and that’s really confusing, get it? There are strange music video mash ups of scenes from General Hospital and really long bits of the sign for the men’s restroom talking. Yes, you heard me right. In the Q&A after the film, Franco was perhaps even more far-gone than he was when he hosted the Oscars with Anne Hathaway. He went on and on about how the whole reason he went on the show was to bridge the gap between film actors and soap opera actors, because he doesn’t like the idea that soap operas are a lesser medium. This would have sounded like a very noble attempt had you heard it before seeing the ridiculous and wholly narcissistic film he made about it.
It reminded me of a pseudo experimental film that students would shoot without a real plan, and then edit when they’re high and think it’s really hilarious. “Did you see Franco’s film? What was that?” was a popular conversation starter in line for the rest of the festival. A highlight for me was meeting a group of 6th grade boys in line who were there with their film teacher (this is Austin after all). They spent a good ten minutes extolling the virtues of Francophrenia to me. It was adorable and funny, and I just want James Franco to know that there is a group of middle schoolers who this film really spoke to.
Silver Lining Playbook is the much-hyped new film by David O. Russell (The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees), based on the novel by Matthew Quick, starring golden boy Bradley Cooper, rising star Jennifer Lawrence, and the unfailing Robert De Niro. I had seen the trailer before practically every movie during the latter half of this summer and still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Cooper’s character, Pat, is released from a mental hospital after being admitted for a meltdown upon discovering his wife’s infidelity. Moving back in with his parents (De Niro and Jacki Weaver), Pat begins his mission, which is to win his wife back. There are a lot of feelings in this movie. One minute you’re in shock over the really dark subject matter, and the next you’re laughing, and then you feel bad for laughing because it gets serious again. But then you forget about feeling bad because you’re laughing again.
Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) at a dinner party, a young widow who was fired from her job for sleeping with everyone at the company and has also had to move back in with her parents. Through a very bizarre pursuit and courtship, the pair is drawn together by their mutual crazy. To explain the plot of this movie is not the best way to sell it, because it sounds so strange. A dance competition comes into play, and Chris Tucker, and De Niro says “juju” a lot. But trust me, it all works somehow. It’s quick, sincere, and pretty darn funny. This was perhaps the one screening at AFF where the writers dropped their angst and just enjoyed the film as an audience. Not surprisingly, Silver Lining Playbook was the winner of the AFF Marquee Feature Audience Award, gaining some momentum as the film’s theatrical release and awards season approach.
AFF likes to showcase alumni of the festival and/or Texas natives whenever possible. Such was the case with It’s a Disaster, written and directed by University of Texas alum Todd Berger. Julia Stiles, David Cross, and America Ferrera led the ensemble cast in this farcical comedy set around a couple’s brunch. Four couples are trapped inside when a chemical attack breaks out in the outside world, and panic and chaos breaks out inside. The concept is ridiculous, and the movie does not take itself seriously at all – very much in the vein of Hot Fuzz or Shawn of the Dead. While hardly as well executed as either of those films, it is a very fun movie. Julia Stiles has some of the best comedic parts, such as her character collapsing in tears when the end seems imminent, screaming, “I never watched The Wire!” It isn’t likely you’ll get to see this movie in a theater unless you live in a major city like New York or Los Angeles, so look out for it on Netflix.
The Sapphires is a giddily funny, feel good musical by no one you’ve heard of, starring all unknowns plus a British actor you may have heard of. Set in 1968, four Aboriginal girls form a singing group and audition for their first real gig - a chance to go to Vietnam to perform for the American troops. Chris O’Dowd plays the manager who discovers them at a talent show and gets the girls to start singing soul music instead of country. He tells them that country music is about sitting at home and whining about love, whereas soul music is about going after what you lost and getting it back. All of the musical numbers are awesome and will undoubtedly have an affect on your post viewing listening habits. O’Dowd, while being known in the UK for starring in The IT Crowd and various other hit television series, has only recently come to the attention of American audiences after being in Bridesmaids. He is quite a charming fellow and perhaps up to challenge Mark Ruffalo as the go-to casting choice for the “lovable rascal” type. All of the girls and supporting actors are great, but O’Dowd steals the show.
When Robert Zemeckis makes a new film, everyone holds their breath – it could be great, it could be a game changer, it could be a classic! After all, this is the man who made Back to the Future, and directed Forest Gump and Romancing the Stone. Since BTTF, he has only written Polar Express and A Christmas Carol (let’s not talk about those), but the potential for greatness is there, and movie lovers everywhere have been waiting for his next great film. With Flight, expectations were high. Denzel Washington stars and the trailer made it look promising. Washington is a drug addicted, alcoholic pilot who miraculously crash lands a plane and then has to defend himself from prosecution. I do not feel that Flight can fairly be touted as a Zemeckis film because he did not write it – John Gatins did – and while trying not to sound harsh, I do need to point out that Gatins is known for having written Coach Carter and Real Steel. Lower your expectations appropriately, and then it won’t be such a surprise that this is not a great movie.
First of all, Washington’s character is an absolutely horrible person. Cocaine addict, raging alcoholic, absent father, promiscuous, and the list goes on. And this is the protagonist of the film that, as the audience, you have to spend two hours with and are asked to feel and root for. Uh, no thanks? John Goodman plays his dealer, and the scenes with him are done in such an overly stylized and comical way that it just made me uncomfortable. There is also a really random and not fully fleshed out religious undertone that is so neglected in the story it just seems comical when it surfaces. Having said all this, the crash scene at the beginning is spectacular, and Washington does give an impressive performance regardless of the fact that his character is a terrible human being. If you go in with reasonably low expectations, there may be something to get out of it, but overall I was disappointed, and do not understand all the Oscar buzz surrounding it at all.
Overall, AFF was a mixed bag this year, with far fewer big name Oscar contenders, many more independent features, and a good sprinkling of the obscure. The festival’s greatest value is what continues to set it apart - the emphasis on writers. As annoying as it may be to stand next to them in line, we don’t get movies without them.
Director: James Franco
Title: Silver Lining Playbook
Director: David O. Russell
Title: It’s A Disaster
Director: Todd Berger
Title: The Sapphires
Director: Wayne Blair
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast of It’s A Disaster