Austin Film Society grants open for submissions

The Austin Film Society’s annual fund for emerging Texas filmmakers, the AFS Grant, is open for submissions.

During this year’s grant cycle, AFS will hand out more than $100,000 in cash grants. The application is online at, as are grant instructions, a grant writing tip sheet and information about live instructional workshops offered in El Paso, Dallas, Houston, Forth Worth and Austin. Since 1996, the society has awarded more than $1.7 million in cash and services to Texas filmmakers.

In addition to cash grants from AFS Grant fund, this year’s grant partners are offering applicants a range of services and cash for many different production phases.

New this year, AFS is partnering with Colaborator and the Texas Motion Picture Alliance to offer the Colaborator Narrative Short Film Grant, which will provide $5,000 in production funds and support for one narrative short film project.

The Stuck On On DCP In-Kind Grant will award one theatrical digital cinema package for two different feature-length films.

Kodak Motion Picture Film will create a 35mm exhibition film print to one film of any length, and the grant recipient can to screen their print in a theater in Austin. Kodak will also continue their in-kind grant of $5,000 of motion picture film stock.

This year’s Austin Film Society Powered by Dell Grant includes an in-kind Dell post-production suite, valued at $10,000. The MPS Camera and Lighting Austin Grant offers $10,000 in equipment rentals and production services.

The grant will close for submissions on June 2. Applications are reviewed over the summer, with the panel of national film industry representatives convening in Austin in late August to determine the recipients. Winners will be announced in early September.

Watch Melissa McCarthy’s new Alamo Drafthouse ‘don’t talk’ PSA

Actress/physical comedy dynamo Melissa McCarthy has provided her services to Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse for one of their signature “don’t talk” PSAs. The results are … beefy.

Credit: Alamo Drafthouse via YouTube
Credit: Alamo Drafthouse via YouTube

In the clip uploaded to YouTube on Monday, the “Bridesmaids” star takes a break from her fitness regimen to explain why patrons should keep their screens to themselves. Also, she pumps iron (ish) with fitness models.

Watch the PSA below.

Also coming to a theater near you, Drafthouse or otherwise: McCarthy in the “Ghostbusters” reboot.

New season of ‘Dusk Till Dawn’ shooting in New Mexico, not Texas

From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, for El Rey Network and Miramax. L to R; Briana Evigan as Sonja Lam and D.J. Cotrona as Seth Gecko.
From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, for El Rey Network and Miramax. L to R; Briana Evigan as Sonja Lam and D.J. Cotrona as Seth Gecko.

Central Texas recently got some good news that AMC will start filming the new series based on Philipp Meyer’s “The Son” here this summer. But there’s one troubling development regarding another longtime project that started in Austin.

Robert Rodriguez, who has been shooting his El Rey Network series “From Dusk Till Dawn” at his local Troublemaker Studios, has decided to begin filming season three of the popular show in Albuquerque, N.M.

The new season, a joint production of Miramax and El Rey, will have 10 hour-long episodes with a returning cast of D.J. Cotrona, Zane Holtz, Jesse Garcia and Jake Busey.

The new season will follow the travails of the Gecko brothers who have to fight their way through vampire empires in Texas and New Mexico.

Rodriguez has long been a proponent of shooting in Texas, and most of his films have been shot here. But the Texas Legislature has cut funding for the film incentives program overseen by the Texas Film Commission, and New Mexico’s program is more alluring, in financial terms.


Austin filmmakers shine in SXSW Film audience awards


 Continuing a trend in this year’s South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, Austin filmmakers won big in the SXSW Film Audience Awards, with Austin filmmaker Greg Kwedar’s “Transpecos” winning for feature competition films and “Tower” winning for documentary competition films. “Tower,” by Austin director Keith Maitland, also won a jury award earlier in the week. 

SXSW announced the Audience Award winners Saturday for the Narrative Feature Competition, Documentary Feature Competition, Headliners, Narrative Spotlight, Documentary Spotlight, Visions, Midnighters, Episodic, 24 Beats Per Second, SXGlobal, Festival Favorites and Design Award categories.

SXSW: More Pee-Wee! A deeper look at the new movie, plus weekend showtimes

Paul Reubens is interviewed on the red carpet before the premiere of his film, Pee-Wee's Big Holiday at the SXSW Film Festival at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas on Thursday, March 17, 2016. Kelly West/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Paul Reubens is interviewed on the red carpet before the premiere of his film, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday at the SXSW Film Festival at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas on Thursday, March 17, 2016.

By Matt Shiverdecker

(“Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” is now streaming on Netflix. If you’d rather have the big screen experience, it has select showtimes this weekend at the Alamo Lakeline and Alamo Slaughter Lane locations.)

It’s been over 30 years since Tim Burton took us all on “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.” There has subsequently been some form of development on a new Pee-Wee Herman film happening for the last decade and a new film has finally surfaced thanks to the deep pockets over at Netflix. While it certainly took a long time, fans will not be disappointed in the end result. Director John Lee manages to capture the playful essence of the Pee-Wee Herman character that has found Paul Reubens delighting audiences for so long.

This story does seem to exist in its own universe, as Pee-Wee lives in the small town of Fairville, where it appears as though everyone is straight out of the 1950s. It’s a place with stores like Nana’s Yarn Barn and Dan’s Diner, where Pee-Wee works as a short order cook. His home is still filled with imaginative inventions and life hacks and he drives around in a comically miniature car. It’s established that (even though “Big Adventure” took him to the Alamo in San Antonio) Pee-Wee has never crossed the railroad tracks to leave Fairville, spending his entire existence within the city limits.

One day Pee-Wee is left to tend to the diner by himself when a mysterious customer arrives on a motorcycle. It turns out to be actor Joe Manganiello (“True Blood,” “Magic Mike”), clearly having a lot of fun as a hysterically alternate universe version of himself where he and Pee-Wee become instant friends. They start to finish each other’s sentences shortly after meeting and have the exact same passions for bizarrely unique things like model town building and root beer barrels. Manganiello tells Pee-Wee that he has to dedicate himself to “breaking rules and breaking hearts,” encouraging him to leave the confines of Fairville to come to his birthday party in New York a mere five days later.

And so Pee-Wee’s new adventure begins, running into everything from a bank robbing trio of young women, an Amish community, a bus full of hairdressers on the way to a competition, and even a flying car along the way. The movie mostly plays out as a serious of unrelated skits (which makes sense given Lee’s history co-creating the gleefully offensive “Wonder Showzen” on MTV2 back in 2005). Produced by Judd Apatow with a screenplay by Reubens and Paul Rust (co-creator and star of the new Netflix series “Love”), the plot is admittedly thin, but it’s all harmless and terribly silly fun.

Reubens, who is now 63, has managed (with the help of an extra round of makeup) to freeze time with this character, looking almost identical to how he did over three decades ago. The laughs are goofy and quick, harmless enough for kids of all ages but absurd enough to please older fans. There are moments when the gags seemingly go on for too long, but after the wait we’ve had for more Pee-Wee, they’re easy enough to forgive. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait nearly as long for Pee-Wee’s next journey.

SXSW Film review: “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday”

Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, apparently there is something indestructible about Pee-wee HermNetflix-Pee-wees-Big-Holiday-World-Premiere-SXSWan. Pee-wee writer, producer and actor Paul Reubens can drop the character for 20 years, doing bit parts here and there (he’s been terrific in everything from “Blow” to “The Blacklist” to “Gotham”) and apparently pick it up in 2016 to absolutely rapturous applause from the (admittedly famously generous) SXSW audience Thursday night at the Paramount Theatre, wherein debuted “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.”

Now, all of this applause was generated by adult humans, many of whom remember either the TV show or the movies as if they were yesterday. How “Big Holiday,” which hits Netflix Friday, will fare with kids…who knows? But parents who enjoyed the franchise will get a kick out of this silly film, directed by newcomer John Lee, written by Reubens and Paul Rust and produced by Judd Apatow.

After a Rube Goldberg opening in the grand tradition of the gewgaw-laden set pieces from the TV show and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” we see Pee-wee at his job as a fry cook at Dan’s Diner in the idyllic town of Fairville, where Pee-wee never wants to leave.

That is until a stranger (extremely funny, good sport Joe Manganiello, playing himself) rolls into town and into Dan’s. Pee-wee is, um, intrigued. They chat about candy and scale-models (look for Pee-wee’s brilliant “Magic Mike” one-liner) when Manganiello invites Pee-wee to his birthday party in the Big Apple.

It is time for Pee-wee to leave the nest, at least for a little while, so our man-boy (who sure doesn’t look 63 years old — there may be some digital trickery involved) moves from sketch-premise to sketch-premise, which is totally fine.

He meets up with some bank robbers (Jessica Pohly, Stephanie Beatriz, Alia Shawkat) who carjack Pee-wee, he meets a farmer with a whole mess of sisters who want to bed him, he meets a woman with a flying car. That sort of thing. You know…Pee-wee stuff.

Lee whips through the material, and while there are fewer prop-based antics than the other films, the gags and punchlines are spot-on. The bowtie is back.

SXSW: ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday’ premiere

By Jane Kellogg Murray

Paul Reubens is interviewed on the red carpet before the premiere of his film, "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday," at the SXSW Film Festival at the Paramount Theater in Austin on Thursday, March 17, 2016. (Kelly West/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Paul Reubens is interviewed on the red carpet before the premiere of his film, “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday,” at the SXSW Film Festival at the Paramount Theater in Austin on Thursday, March 17, 2016. (Kelly West/AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Pee-Wee’s next big adventure brought him to Austin’s Paramount Theatre for the world premiere of “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday.” It has been nearly 30 years since Paul Reubens donned his grey suit and red bowtie for the big screen, but audiences haven’t forgotten his beloved character: A crowd engulfed Congress Avenue Thursday night — chanting “Pee-Wee” and donning bowties — all for a chance to see the actor in the flesh. On Friday, the movie will debut on Netflix in addition to a limited number of theaters nationwide.

In “Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday,” the funnyman, 63, looks as good as he did in his ’80s heyday, thanks in part to a bit of Hollywood magic. In the film, Reubens’ character finds an unlikely friend in hunky bad-boy Joe Manganiello (“True Blood,” “Magic Mike”), who encourages him to take his first holiday and meet him in the Big Apple. Along the way, he’s taken hostage by a trio of bank robbers (Jessica Pohly, Stephanie Beatriz, and Alia Shawkat). A host of Pee-Wee-esque shenanigans ensue.

Shawkat, who also premiered “Search Party” at this year’s festival, admitted she was nursing a slight hangover on the red carpet — the “Arrested Development” star has shown up at events all over town this week. Manganiello’s wife, “Modern Family”’s Sofia Vergara, was spotted at the premiere (donning a skin-tight red dress, what else?) but skipped the red carpet to avoid stealing the limelight.

Super producer Judd Apatow, who premiered “Trainwreck” to rave reviews during last year’s SXSW film festival, signed on to the project after catching one of Reubens’ Los Angeles performances in 2010. He brought comedian Paul Rust onboard to co-write the script with Reubens.

Apatow says the film should appeal to the show’s original fans in addition to a new generation of younger viewers. “I’ve been a huge fan of Pee Wee Herman forever,” Apatow said on the red carpet. “It’s like what we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

“To have Judd Apatow say ‘I want to make your movie’ is such an exciting thing to happen,” Reubens said. “He added the exact right blend of being there all the time and pulling back and letting us do our thing.”

SXSW Film Review: ‘Soundbreaking – Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music’

By Jane Kellogg Murray

“Soundbreaking” aims to tell the relatively brief history of sound recording — just over a century — through the collective voices of the music industry’s greatest artists and producers. There is a reason why a project of this scope has never been attempted before. One: it’s an amazing feat to secure this many in-depth interviews (more than 200) with unreachable industry geniuses like Elton John; Roger Waters; and the producer of the Beatles, the late Sir George Martin. And two: it’s damn near impossible to organize so many interviews into a cohesive, succinct series when all is said and done.

The impossible was achieved, for the most part, with award-winning film and television producers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre. The documentarians devoted years to the project, which premiered at SXSW this week; it should perform well with PBS’s 100 million television viewers when it airs as an 8-part series this November. However, audiences may find the series’ format difficult to digest. Extensive interviews with and about Martin in the first episode could easily make a fascinating documentary all on their own — particularly following his death March 8. Instead, his story is blended among (equally fascinating) stories of producers like Phil Spector and Rick Rubin. The result is overwhelmingly disjointed; at times, it feels like an indecisive teenager flipping between radio stations.

During a Q&A with the audience after the series’ SXSW premiere, the filmmakers explained their editing decisions. “We chose to focus on the human relationships at the heart of all these recordings,” Chermayeff said. “The contrast between them was illuminating.” Dupre continued that finding a way to organize the series was “the hardest part.”

Instead of a timeline, the series is organized thematically: while the first episode focuses on the people, the second tells the story of the recording devices themselves, and how they have evolved over the course of a century. Later topics in the series: how music and video have collided in the age of MTV, and a look at how music went from acoustic to electric. In addition to hundreds of interviews (Adele, Beck, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney — there is certainly no shortage of star power), each episode includes rare archival footage painstakingly hand-picked from more than 80 years worth of material.

While “Soundbreaking” has its faults, the documentary is unique in that it tells a story not about music, but the art of producing it. In an era where music is more ubiquitous than it has ever been, the series gives an inside look at the magic behind the scenes — in a way that the outside world can begin to understand what goes into making it.

“Soundbreaking – Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music” will preview once more during SXSW on March 17, 5:15 p.m., at the Alamo Drafthouse on Slaughter Lane. The series will premiere on PBS November 14.

SXSW review: ‘Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story’

cantuWhen you watch a documentary about a subject who committed suicide, the film usually has an energy that propels the story to its unfortunate conclusion. But “Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story” doesn’t move with that same thrust. It ambles, moving back and forth in time to piece together the parts between the beginning and end of the great Chicago chef’s life. And while the impending doom doesn’t send many portentous alarms throughout the movie, a darkness lingers over the story of a man who rose from punishing lows to brilliant heights.

The film, which made its world premiere at South by Southwest, opens with tight shots of molecular gastronomy wizardry from the chef and talking heads placing Cantu not just in the context of the culinary world, but the world at large. People talk about how he wanted to improve people’s lives, revolutionize the food system and change the world. Heady ideas for a man born into poverty and abuse.

The film shows the former Moto (and Ing) chef at the precipice of his greatest success in 2004 before jumping back in time to give some understanding of where the chef came from and his motivations for improving the world. Through archival photos and some minor recreations, director Brett Schwartz tells the story of a troubled young man abused and abandoned by his mother, only to land in the home of a mercurial alcoholic father. The neglect at home pushed Cantu to find his own path, and, though he was an indifferent student, he discovered an aptitude for shop and woodwork classes and his teenage jobs in the food world.

Those twin passions would wed to inform his innovative style of cooking. The chef, who earned a Michelin star for his flagship restaurant, always used his impoverished and traumatic upbringing at motivation. Having come from nothing, he always felt he had nothing to lose, and he proved an indefatigable and hungry student in the culinary world.

The movie has a very handmade quality, using shaky archival video and a few too many shots of messages on computer screens to tell its story, and some sloppy editing takes some of the tension out of the narrative, as we bounce from his past to the almost present. But the amateurism lends an intimacy to the film and makes it feel like a patchwork put together after the chef’s death to make sense of what went wrong.

The specifics of those details can be vague at times, but what is clear is that Cantu, who spent four years learning at the foot of Chicago legend Charlie Trotter, was a man of singular vision and one who wanted to bring a change to the food world. We see him discuss his desire to make organic food accessible to poor communities, while he also attempts to revolutionize fast food by cutting calories through the use of miracle berries,but the details of his vision aren’t always that clear.

It makes sense that a film about a man who took on myriad projects and seemed to prioritize dreams over details would feel weighted with disparate information and lack some narrative cohesion. By the time his death arrives suddenly at the end of the film, the audience may not quite understand the depth of the troubles that led Cantu to such a decision, but the weight of his loss is obvious.

SXSW Film Review: “A Song for You: The Austin City Limits story”

Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett sing together at the "Austin City Limits" Hall of Fame ceremony in 2014. Photo by Scott Newton/courtesy ACL and KLRU-TV
Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett sing together at the “Austin City Limits” Hall of Fame ceremony in 2014. Photo by Scott Newton/courtesy ACL and KLRU-TV

Making a documentary of a long-running television show like “Austin City Limits” is probably harder than it might seem on the surface. Sure, you have decades of ready-to-use footage at your disposal. But how do you make it look like something other than a greatest-hits clip show?

Director Keith Maitland — whose other SXSW film this year, “Tower,” won the festival’s documentary jury prize — managed the task by using those archives only sparingly, and when he did, generally focusing on the very best of the very best. Most of “A Song for You: The Austin City Limits Story” gets told from behind-the-scenes footage, some historical and some shot specifically for this film over the past couple of years.

Among the most effective methods was following ACL executive producer Terry Lickona and his crew through a series of meetings to plan the launch of their ACL Hall of Fame two years ago. We get a sense of how such projects come together, sometimes with animated discussion among the staffers, sometimes with Lickona just casually mentioning that he texted Lyle Lovett about performing and got the green light.

Lovett figures prominently in one of the key sections near the end of the film, as he and his Large Band taped the final episode at the show’s historic Studio 6A home before the move downtown to ACL Live in 2011. It’s touching to see Lovett taking time out to talk with the show’s creator, Bill Arhos, just moments before taking the stage.

The relationship between Arhos and Lickona also helps to personalize the film. Lickona, who has steered the show since its fourth season, worked closely with Arhos until the latter’s retirement in 2000. The death of Arhos last year makes their conversations in this film bittersweet, especially set against classic and fittingly minimal footage of Willie Nelson singing the movie’s namesake tune, “A Song for You.”

Dozens of artists from a wide range of genres are interviewed briefly throughout the film, so many that the focus sometimes feels a bit scattershot. The best moments come when the pace slows down, focusing on the musical magic that happens when, say, Thao Nguyen talks to her mom just after taping the show, or when Dolly Parton sings her classic “I Will Always Love You.” As many artists stress, the TV show has succeeded because, in St. Vincent’s words, “it’s not about smoke and mirrors.” The best stretches of “A Song for You” follows that same principle.