Sunday, October 23, 2011

Austin Film Festival Weekend Roundup

I am exhausted. The past few days have been wonderful, filled with great films and not enough sleep.  So, pardon my very brief reviews of these films, as many of them deserve much more. But let's start with what I wasn't able to see: "The Rum Diary" starring Johnny Depp.

Hundreds stood in line at The Paramount to get into the premiere screening and see Johnny Depp walk the Austin Film Fest red carpet. The crowd was so large that even AFF badge holders didn't necessarily get in to the packed screening. I could see the writing on the wall, so I took off to the convention center to see my films for the evening.

The first was a documentary about Tetris champions, "Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters." In the vein of other films like "The King of Kong: A Fistfull of Quarters", which draws natural comparison, this film tracks several Tetris champions as they prepare for the 2010 national tournament. (Who knew there were video game tournaments, and champions?) Interesting characters, interesting story. While not as good as "King of Kong", so far this has been my second favorite film of the festival.

Then a major change of pace with "Freak Dance", a film by the redoubtable comedy group The Upright Citizens Brigade. It's a spoof of our current rash (and I emphasize rash- as in itchy, burning and contagious) of dance movies. And what better way to send them up than with musical theater? Seriously. Based on the UCB's stage show, this is a lot of fun, and features some of their most visible alumni, such as Amy Poehler, who has the best line of the film when she explains what legwarmers are really for. This is absolutely the most fun I had with a film this festival. I'm hoping this gets a wider release, in which case look for it in theaters (hopefully) soon.

I'm only going to mention a few of the films I saw Saturday and Sunday, as one of them was my absolute favorite. "American Teacher" is a documentary based loosely on a book called Teachers Have It Easy The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers. Narrated by Matt Damon, it tells the story of four teachers across America, some in rural areas, others in urban, dealing with near universal problems: low pay, long hours, and an increasing scorn for the work that they do (anyone been paying attention to the news for the last year?). One of them, a Central Texas native, tells the story of having to get a second job at a Best Buy just to try to make ends meet, and having parents of his students come in and go through the humiliation of explaining that this is his second job. Because of these pressures, so many teachers burn out and go into other professions, and the reason most of them got into teaching in the first place-- their love of kids and teaching-- has to go by the wayside. This is heartbreaking, especially when I think about our current situation in Texas and the budget hole we've put ourselves in year after year of underfunding education.



My only criticism of the film is that it fails to talk about several large elephants in the room. The first is testing. The second is the influence of teachers' unions. I'll admit my biases: I'm anti-testing (or anti-teaching to the test) and pro-union. But I think it's a disservice to talk about these issues of how underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated public school teachers are without discussing one of the main drains on their curriculum time and money spent by school districts in preparing for and participating in these tests, not to mention the almost single biggest stressor for teachers, which is testing. It also does a disservice to not talk about unions, even in a warts and all fashion.  The filmmakers said they wanted to avoid these topics because of how divisive they could be, but I think not even a cursory look at them makes the impact of the film a bit more muted. Instead we're left with a diagnosis of a major problem but not real pathway to fix it. Ok, I'll put away my soapbox now, but I can't recommend this film enough. The best of the festival so far, hands down.

My last review is for "Austin High", a film that should appeal to local viewers and produced by local filmmakers.  Simple premise: what if the slackers and stoners from your high school days ran the school?

From the filmmakers:
Welcome to Ladybird High, nestled comfortably amongst the soul-searchers, aging hippies, and nouveau weirdos of famously freewheeling Austin, Texas. At Ladybird, it's always 4:20, even for Principal Samuel Wilson. But when the community is rocked by a citywide crackdown on marijuana use, local leaders are determined to make an example of Samuel, his staff and students. When asked to support their iron-fisted efforts, Samuel is beset with the task of cleaning up his beloved school without compromising his life philosophy. Austin High is a coming of age comedy for the young at heart, featuring an ensemble cast right from the source. Knowing there's more than just fun at stake, Samuel's daughter and crew of oddball friends try to keep him honest along the way. In the city officials' "war on weird," Samuel and the rest of the blazed faculty, students and staff of Ladybird High School will have to conform or pay the price. The fight is under way, and everyone must find the courage to stand up and defend the city they love, before it's stripped of its unique essence and mutated into the latest American strip mall: a drab monument to consumerism.
That's a good synopsis. Good fun, if you like stoner comedies. The good news is this one is playing again Monday night at 9:30 at the Rollins Theater, so it is one of the few films that I saw this weekend that have another showing before the festival is over.

Also a quick shout out to some fun I had this evening with Austin local Mike Judge at The Paramount, as he prepares to bring "Beavis and Butthead" back to MTV. The panel was a lot of fun, and most of the footage was the same stuff we saw at Comic-Con, but this is still going to be a fun piece of my adolescence coming back to tv in my "adult"hood.

I should have one more final review coming Thursday to wrap up the festival, and hopefully I will be able to see both George Clooney in Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" and the Shakespeare war drama starring Ralph Fiennes "Coriolanus." Also, a sports documentary about Boston public school basketball, "Push: Madison vs Madison".

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