Having returned home after several days of fun at the Austin Film Festival, it’s time to reflect on the experience. (I’ll leave the lengthy wait at security in the Austin airport out of the discussion. That was a tense way to end the trip.) Travel hiccups notwithstanding, the festival was a bit lighter on star power than I expected (only a few of the films I saw had a Q&A session with filmmakers at its conclusion). However, the quality of the material was quite good. There wasn’t a bad movie in the bunch of the group I saw. And various awards could be in the future of a few of them. That said, I only caught a small amount of the overall lineup (170 were officially listed). But in its 17th year, the festival programmers clearly know what they’re doing and it was well organized and seemingly error-free at the showings I attended.
Compliments aside, here’s a brief rundown of the festival selections I got the chance to catch while in town.
As a study in baseball passion or insanity, “Ballhawks” focuses on a group of individuals who catch baseballs hit out of Wrigley Field onto Waveland Avenue in Chicago. Director Mike Diedrich presents the documentary as a labor of love to Chicago Cubs fans, in particular, but baseball fans in general can connect with the passion this group of die hards have for the game – at least to a point. The film sets its sights on several of the Ballhawks, including one who has pursued the hobby (or obsession, as some might think) for nearly 50 years, having caught over 4,000 baseballs during that span. The subject matter is fairly limited in its scope, but still entertains, helped by the narration of Bill Murray, one of the Cubbies’ biggest fans.
“Shelter in Place”
Photojournalist Zed Nelson’s documentary looks at pollution problems brought about in Port Arthur, Texas, by the “accidental” or “unscheduled” emissions from the numerous petro-chemical plants located in the community. The emissions, as the film makes clear, are protected by Texas law, as long as they are reported by the plants. Meanwhile, the residents, many of whom are poor, African-American and undereducated, largely feel powerless against the petro-chemical industry. As one resident explains, the plants can tie up a legal claim against them in court for years, while expenses for the plaintiff will continue to grow. The material is certainly compelling, and the documentary makes it abundantly clear that Port Arthur is no attractive vacation spot. There’s probably quite a bit more ground that could be covered here, with the film only clocking in at 48 minutes. But in its brief running time, it demonstrates how the power of one just doesn’t look like enough when you’re fighting an opponent and the laws that protect them.
Focusing on the marriage of a young couple, “Blue Valentine” is most certainly not a romantic comedy. Garnering a lot of recent publicity for its NC-17 rating (currently under protest to the Motion Picture Association of America, and rightfully so), the drama is still more than two months away from its official release in theaters. But the acting on display by its stars, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, has already garnered some Oscar buzz. That’s for good reason, as both give passionate and entirely believable performances as a couple falling into and out of love. Director Derek Cianfrance jumps the film back and forth in time, tracing the initial sweet beginnings of a relationship, and the sour patches the two find themselves in during the present. There’s nothing truly groundbreaking in the story, which might be all too familiar for some. But it’s performed with such conviction that the emotional resonance is a bit difficult to shake.
“The Company Men”
Catching Ben Affleck right in the midst of a career upswing, writer/director John Wells’ film debut is very much a timely tale of corporate downsizing and the cold, cruel world of an overcrowded job market. Wells, who has plenty of experience on television (executive producer on “E.R.” and “The West Wing” are among his credits), lays out an eminently watchable, yet overly predictable story. It certainly helps having a stellar cast at his disposal (Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson and Kevin Costner are among the players). Still, the subject matter might hit a little too close to home for some people’s comfort. But that’s not saying that there’s a lot of relatable material here for the lower to middle class (most aren’t contemplating having to sell their Porsche or giving up their golf club membership). Still, the general idea of having a comfortable life pulled out from beneath you upon losing your job (and the accompanying sense of self-worth) is a possibility that makes “The Company Men” seem like a movie of the moment, much like last year’s “Up in the Air.”
Terry Gilliam’s bleak and twisted vision of the future is aided by committed performances from stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt. The screenplay (by David and Janet Peoples, who were both in attendance for a special screening at the Alamo Ritz during the festival) jumps around in time, keeping the audience off balance, just like Willis’ character. As James Cole, an inmate who “volunteers” for an assignment to track the origin of a killer virus, Willis gives one the best performances of his career. The story is a little convoluted at times and leaves some ideas open for interpretation (an intentional action, explained David Peoples during a post-screening Q&A). But the dark material matches the visual sensibilities of Gilliam, who keeps the action moving towards a satisfying conclusion.
“Welcome to the Rileys”
Largely fueled by its three lead performances, “Welcome to the Rileys” is a domestic drama that centers on a failing marriage between a couple (James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo), who have been unable to move on from the death of their teenage daughter several years ago. Taking a trip to New Orleans for a work convention, Doug Riley decides to stay there indefinitely after meeting Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a troubled runaway who is also a stripper/hooker. He takes an interest in helping her (and thankfully, not in creepy older man way), cleaning up her less-than-appealing house, and seeing a chance to offer fatherly guidance again. His wife, who has become agoraphobic in the years since her daughter’s death, makes the trek south from their Indiana home to try and save her marriage. The story doesn’t take too many surprising detours, and director Jake Scott (son of Ridley Scott) does a decent job of letting his great cast do the heavy lifting. If nothing else, it further demonstrates, much like “Adventureland” did last year, that Stewart has a future beyond her “Twilight” days.
Reuniting with director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”), Michelle Williams gives another strong performance (her second of the festival) as a determined settler making her way on the Oregon Trail in 1845. Her character is part of a small group that breaks off from a larger wagon train, choosing to follow Stephen Meek (a very scraggly-looking Bruce Greenwood), a guide who has led them astray. As the days turn into weeks, the group is losing food, water and patience with Meek, with one character even wondering aloud if the guide is incompetent or evil. Their situation is further complicated when they capture a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux), bringing along disagreement on what to do with him. Some, in particularly Meek, favor killing him, while others feel he might be their best chance at finding water and salvation. Reichardt has crafted an authentic look at pioneer life, choosing to frame the proceedings in an almost claustrophobic 4:3 screen ratio, rather than widescreen. Plus, there are long periods of near or complete silence on screen (bringing to mind sequences in 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”). It’s certainly a singular director’s vision that will captivate some people, while driving others to distraction.