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Asperger's Are Us (2016)
A Fascinating examination of Four Young Men with Asperger's
Asperger's Are Us was warmly received in its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. It is a beautiful little film about what it is like to enter adulthood still dealing with Asperger's. We often hear about children and rarely hear about happens to those kids as they enter adulthood. This shows these young still struggling, but basically making it. Their effort to perform comedy a difficult skill for Aspies is inspiring. While their comedy is not all that funny in many ways, their efforts to work together and achieve something creative are powerful. For those of us who don't have a lot of experience with Aspies it is a great way to learn about their struggles. The filmmakers captured a lot of their intimate interactions as they rehearsed together. I appreciated their bravery in sharing their story with the world. The film is well-made and well-edited.
Powerful Film Recreating the 1966 UT Tower Shooting
Tower received huge ovations and overwhelming support in its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. It has already won the grand jury award for best documentary. This is powerful spectacular film that brings back the most traumatic event in the history of this city when a gun man from the UT-Austin's iconic tower committed mass murder on sunny day in August. The film was made to mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of the one of the earliest and one of the worst mass school shootings in American history. It will be released widely on PBS's Independent Lens later this year and possibly in theaters as well. There are still many folks in Austin who remember that day. The filmmaker made the brilliant choice to combine original news coverage with animation so as to recreate the tragic events nearly perfectly (without having to actually film people shooting on the UT- Austin campus). They use actor's voice to recreate the events which are based on interviews with many of the original participants (victims, police, witnesses). Very little is said about the gun man.
For those of us came to the Forty Acres (UT-Austin campus) years later, there is an eerie feeling in just watching the events play out at the center of campus where we know every building, every column, every statue like our own homes. The film is haunting and spellbinding. I really couldn't look away. Afterwards, many of the still living original participants who were portrayed in the film were present on the stage. The moving presence was Clare Wilson, the woman who was 8-month pregnant, and lost her baby and her boyfriend that day.
Tower remains mostly non-political as the film is mostly just a recreating of horror of August 1, 1966. Towards the end, it does speak to the current politics of the issue particularly the Texas campus carry. That law is scheduled to take effect at 4-year universities in Texas on the 50th anniversary on August 1, 2016 supposedly by coincidence. Those current day politics have become an unavoidable epilogue that have forced themselves into the debate. That will also be the day when they are planning to unveil an official memorial to the victims on the UT campus. This is a difficult film to watch, but it must be seen, because the history remains completely relevant today.
Beware the Slenderman (2016)
An Interesting True Crime Story that Where Less Could have Been More
Beware of the Slenderman was well-received at its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. It is a true crime story about two 12-year-old girls who attempt to kill another young girl. The film, which will be broadcast in the near future on HBO. They are telling an intriguing story, but they try to tell too many stories. It seems obvious from the beginning that the girls are suffering from severe mental illness and that's the primary explanation for their violent behavior. Their behavior appears to be linked to mythic internet creature called Slenderman. Some of the most intellectual parts are their explorations of myth and folklore and how people come to rely on them. But then they seem to want to blame mental illness on misuse of the Internet. They don't seem to realize that there are mentally ill people who acted out violently long before there was the Internet. Long before "Slenderman" there were young people with psychological issues. And then spend a lot of time talking to the kids' troubled parents who feel responsible. And they explore the court procedures around their story. And they keep going on and on. They can't really figure out what story they are telling. At two hours the film simply goes on too long and goes off on too many tangents. They repeat their themes over and over without really getting that far. In the end, they could have told this troubling story a lot better and lot more simply. It is still an entertaining story, but it could have been a lot better.
A Peculiar Story about the Complexities of Racism
Accidental Courtesy was well-received at its World Premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. Its protagonist musician Daryl Davis seems well-intentioned in his peculiar efforts to reach out to Klansman. He seems to think that if he as a black man can just talk to these Klansman he can talk them out of their racist. The view seems really naive. Over 30 years, he seems to have won over a few Klansman, but none of his arguments seem to really address the deeper issues. The KKK is only the tip of the iceberg and none of his arguments ever get at the structural causes of racism or the deeper roots of institutional racism. Human contact can certainly breakdown some boundaries and its positive if a few of these extremists get to know a black man and learn that he is human and begin to rethink their views. But I was really glad that the film makers realized how deeply limited Davis's approach was and decided to include his critics from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Black Lives Matter movement. The film is entertaining and well- filmed, but got a bit repetitive after a while as we saw Davis's numerous encounters with different Klansman. Davis is an interesting idiosyncratic character, but his approach to racism is ultimately a bit simplistic.
From Nowhere (2016)
An Excellent Feature that Humanizes Undocumented Immigrants
From Nowhere was warmly received in its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. It is a powerful film about the struggles facing three undocumented teenagers who are about to graduate from high school in the Bronx and are trying to seek political asylum. The script is well-written and the young actors do a great job. From my perspective the film creates a means for those who don't know much about the complex situations faced by undocumented immigrants to see their humanity. In a political climate where demagogic politicians are busy dehumanizing immigrants, it is important for the public to see them as individuals with families, personalities, and complicated individual struggles. I would love to see this film gain a wide release and, if not, I hope there are ways for it to be used in schools for educational purposes.
The Slippers (2016)
A Charming Story about a Beloved Piece of our Past
The Slippers was well-received in its world premiere at SXSW. It is a delightful documentary about unbelievable shenanigans that have played out around multiple sets the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz. The story is full of quirky characters and strange events that have unfolded as the various pairs of ruby slippers have traveled the world. The slippers are probably the most beloved and treasured piece of iconic movie memorabilia as take us all back to the magical land of Oz. The story of the slippers also serves as a lens to explain the growth of the Hollywood memorabilia market which has exploded in the last several decades. This is a must-see for anyone who loves old Hollywood movies. The film made me want to re-watch the Wizard of Oz which I had watched in many years. There is no place like home.
Starving the Beast (2016)
A Provocative Film on Efforts to Destroy Public Higher Education.
Starving the Beast was very well-received in its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival. It is a local product that examines conservative efforts to strangle higher education at public research universities across the country. It starts with Texas, but also examines attacks on major public universities in Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin. Starving the Beast builds its case through interviews and detailed case studies of different universities. It explains how this fits in with a larger conservative ideology to dismantle public services. The film provides an excellent and detailed introduction to very complicated subject that has been underreported in the media. Because education is a local issue and the details differ from state-to-state it rarely draws national media scrutiny. The education reform agenda, which has been developed by conservative think tanks, has been at work across the county at all levels including Public K-12 and Community Colleges. Broadly, the idea is to reduce funding, shift the cost of higher education to students, privatize public entities, and where possible censor more progressive ideas. Starving the Beast explores all these themes. It is entertaining and highly provocative. This crucial topic needs much more public scrutiny and debate. I hope it draws a wider audience on campuses and around the country.
An Emotionally Devastating Portrait of the Tragic Sandy Hook Massacre.
Newtown received a standing ovation at its regional premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX. It touches quite a few nerves in a state that it caught up in a highly divisive debate over its gun laws. Even though everyone walking into the theater saw the news coverage of December 14, 2012 Sandy Hook massacre and knows exactly what happened, the film is hypnotic, powerful and emotionally overwhelming. It is mostly presented through interviews with family members, teachers, a priest, and first responders. They all tell the tale of the tragedy that scarred their small idyllic Connecticut town. The film focuses on three families that were willing to open up and tell some of the stories of the deaths of their children and how those deaths tore their lives apart. The small details and family photos are perhaps the most devastating. The film is done with great care, skill and humanity. The killer's name is never verbalized (and only briefly displayed in some documents on the screen) and his story is not really explored. There is clearly a political agenda at work and film is clearly advocating for more gun control, but that is secondary to presenting a human portrait of the young lives were tragically cut short. Sandy Hook has become the emotional touchstone of the gun debate, because the children were so young and so innocent. The families seem to be resilient and willing to carry on and fight for better laws to save other children from meeting the same tragic fate. The film is haunting and left much of the audience trying to hold back tears. For those who are willing to ride this emotional roller-coaster, Newtown is highly recommended.
Fantastic Lies (2016)
An Excellent In-depth Examination of a Controversial Event
I had the opportunity to see the World Premiere of Fantastic Lies at Austin's SXSW Film Festival last night. It was very well-received. It will premiere tonight for the 10th anniversary - on ESPN's 30 for 30 series although it is a film that goes well beyond issues of sports. The documentary is a very even-handed attempt to examine the tragedy of the Duke Lacrosse rape case. The tragedy appears to be that 3 young men had their lives nearly ruined by a false allegation of a rape that never happened. The rape accusation was exploited by an ambitious prosecutor and various other forces looking to address existing and very real concerns about class and race in Durham, NC. The film explores the evidence and talks to many of those close to the case such as the parents of some of the accused lacrosse players. It presents a thorough examination of the ugly events and political shenanigans around them. While some questions remain unanswered and perhaps are unanswerable the film fits in well with so many other documentaries of innocent people accused of crimes they didn't commit. In that sense, it fits in with the many documentaries made about the West Memphis Three, Cameron Willingham, Michael Morton and so many other cases where ambitious prosecutors have gotten ahead of their evidence.
The problem that bothered me is that it never really addressed the larger issues of the epidemic of campus sexual assault raised by the recent documentary, The Hunting Ground, and many other reports. This case seems to be an exceptional one when it comes to campus sexual assault where the politics led to a false accusation whereas the more common problem seems to be institutions that cover and protect sexual predators. It felt like that larger issue was left unaddressed. Still, the film is certainly recommended for those looking to understand a disturbing sequence of events at an elite university.
Richard Linklater: A Tribute to a Great Austin Director
Dream is Destiny is an enjoyable tribute to Austin's greatest directing talent and was extremely well-received during its showing at Austin's SXSW Film Festival where Linklater is adored. It is mostly focused on showing and discussing clips from Linklater's oeuvre. The clips are enjoyable and well-chosen. The film offers some insight into Linklater's development. The interviews with him and his friends are entertaining. And yet, a film done his close friends is more of a tribute than a serious critical examination of his work. The film was co-directed by his close friend Louis Black (co-founder of SXSW and the Austin Chronicle). Almost by definition it lacks the critical depth needed for serious documentary filmmaking. It is informative and entertaining, but more nostalgic than really in-depth. It skips over his weaker films and focuses on his more iconic works. It also chronicles some of the changes in Austin, TX and the Austin film scene that has grown up around him. It is certainly a good introduction to his work for those who aren't familiar and provides a nice walk down memory lane for fans. Still, a much better documentary could be made about Linklater and his works.