Texas ties run strong in these SXSW films

Pierce Brosnan stars in “The Son.” Contributed

Some were shot here. Some come from filmmakers who live here. And one is set in the Austin music scene (though our critic begs to differ). These are some of the movies with ties to Texas that screened at South by Southwest.

“The Son”: Based on the 2013 novel by Austin’s Philipp Meyer, shot in Central Texas, set in Texas — this TV series, coming to AMC on April 8, could only get more “Texas” if you threw in a cameo from Willie Nelson riding on Bevo while eating some Blue Bell. Pierce Brosnan plays the family patriarch; critic Charles Ealy says “he’s an archetype, of course, but what a complex character, whom Brosnan fully captures in the first two episodes of the new season.”

REVIEW: Get ready: ‘The Son’ might be the next great Texas TV series

“Song to Song”: SXSW’s opening night movie, from Austin director Terrence Malick, is “a modern love story set against the Austin, Texas, music scene.” But according to our critic Joe Gross, it “is a movie about Austin the way “Star Wars” is about Tunisia — it was shot there, but in terms of the flavor of the place, it might as well have been a matte painting.”

REVIEW: The gorgeous ‘Song to Song’ has little to do with music or Austin

“Disgraced”: This Showtime documentary is about the 2003 murder of college basketball player Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson and the accusations that followed against Baylor University and head coach Dave Bliss.

REVIEW: ‘Disgraced’ will leave you disgusted with Dave Bliss and Baylor University

“The Honor Farm”: This is Austin director Karen Skloss’ first narrative feature, “a story that subverts every aspect of the horror genre, not in a satirical way but in a sweet and very mushroom-trippy way.”

REVIEW: ‘Honor Farm’ delightfully subverts horror genre at SXSW

“Infinity Baby”: Austin-based filmmaker Bob Byington has created what critic Matt Shiverdecker calls “a gleefully sardonic comedy sharply observed in black-and-white across our fair city.” It stars Kieran Culkan, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Martin Starr and Noël Wells.

REVIEW: ‘Infinity Baby’ mines futuristic concept for sharply observed laughs

“Walking Out”: This feature from brothers Alex and Andrew Smith (one a current Austinite, the other a former) tells “an intense story of survival against the odds, an unexpectedly emotional journey” and stars Matt Bomer and Josh Wiggins.

REVIEW: ‘Walking Out’ is a bold and unexpectedly emotional tale of survival

“La Barracuda”: This thriller from Austin-based directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund is about half-sisters who meet for the first time, and how that affects the extended family; it features lots of Texas music and some tracks live at the Saxon Pub.

REVIEW: Familial deception is at the heart of Austin-based film ‘La Barracuda’



SXSW winner ‘Transpecos’ gets distribution deal


Here’s an uplifting tale for aspiring filmmakers out there. And it also illustrates why festivals like South by Southwest, Fantastic Fest and the Austin Film Festival are so important.

Austin resident Greg Kwedar got his debut feature, “Transpecos,” into the narrative feature competition this March at South by Southwest. It was unheralded, and few people in the Austin film crowd even knew who Kwedar was.

But securing a spot in the competition – and providing an early screener to critics – helped build buzz,, and the  thriller about the Border Patrol went on to win the audience award – which means festival attendees thought it to be the best of the bunch.

Kwedar and his team had no distributor for the film, however. And without a distributor, most movies just end up screening here and there, at places like the Austin Film Society and various festivals, without reaching a wide audience.

But that’s what festivals are for – raising the profile of small, independent films. And this week, Kwedar got the best news possible. Samuel Goldwyn Films is buying the rights to “Transpecos” and plans a theatrical release in the fall.

And in May, Screen Media Ventures will be attending the Cannes Film Festival, trying to sell distribution rights to international territories.

The deal was first reported by Deadline.com. And Peter Goldwyn of Samuel Goldwyn Films said, “Greg is a raw talent in independent cinema. ‘Transpecos’ is an accomplished first feature that we’re eager to deliver to audiences in theaters and in homes across the country.”

Details of the deal were not disclosed.

The thriller stars Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna and Clifton Collins Jr. Kwedar co-wrote the script with Clint Bentley.



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.

SXSW: The makings of the TV series “Lucha Underground” and first live show in Austin

"Lucha Underground"
“Lucha Underground”

By Liliana Valenzuela

¡Ahora Sí!

 Date/time: Tuesday, March 15, panel at 2 p.m. at Four Seasons and evening show at Austin Music Hall, 8-11 p.m.

The panelists: 2 p.m. panel with Brandon Stroud, Pro Wrestling Editor, Dorian Roldán Executive Producer, Eric Van Wagenen, Executive Producer and Showrunner, Joseph Chaisson Executive Producer, Rey Mysterio Jr.

4:30 p.m. press conference with Eric Van Wagenen, Executive Producer and Showrunner, Ivelisse Velez, Wrestler, Vampiro, Commentator and Wrestler, Rey Mysterio Jr., Wrestler, Catrina, Wrestler, and Johnny Mundo, Wrestler.

Evening show at Austin Music Hall with those and other wrestlers.

261391_767737783356948_5217395180776485919_nThe gist: The creators and performers of “Lucha Underground,” a TV series that mashes the world of wrestling with that of telenovelas (Spanish soap operas) now in its second season, discussed some of the successes and challenges they have encountered during the filming of the first season. And in the evening, for the first time ever, the characters of this show took it outside their usual venue in Boyle Heights, L.A. on the road and presented it at the Austin Music Hall. Lucha Underground is an El Rey Network production, Austin Filmmaker Robert Rodríguez’s network. Rodríguez was not in attendance at the panel or press conference.

The takeaway: About 50 Lucha Underground fans waited since 12 p.m. noon outside the Austin Music Hall for the 8 p.m. show to get a glimpse of their Lucha Underground superheroes, wrestlers who fight, conspire and sometimes cry in this show.

The producers wanted to “create something a bit different from the wrestling world, something that would bring the Comic Con and the Sci-Fi crowds,” said Eric Van Wagenen, executive producer and showrunner. And added “one of the challenges is to get more eyeballs on the product.”

For the wrestlers, being in a TV series has meant having a bit more downtime, different from being on the road almost 360 days a year, said long-time wrestler that goes by Vampiro. “We can recover physically and the level of stress goes way down,” he said. Plus, “it builds anticipation for the audience,” from one season to the next.

They producers commented on how this is more of an indie project, with indie filmmaking values.

“The creators, the writers, everyone is one the same page, there’s no ego,” said Vampiro. He especially likes the camaraderie on the set, he said.

The show has some fantasy, supernatural elements embodied by Catrina, the lady dressed in black. “I’m allowed to do over-the-top things, play with her, test the waters, including the lick of death,” said the enigmatic Catrina.

The storyline in the telenovela-like format has allowed some of the actors to learn to “dial it down” when they’re on the set, said Johnny Mundo. “People go to hear music, see movies, TV, to feel something,” said Mundo, “at the heart of it is the emotion.”

For all the wrestlers it was exciting to be performing outside of “The Temple” for the first time, the location in Boyle Heights, L.A. where there are the “sweat, blood and tears of so many people…it has magic,” said Vampiro. This was a dry run for them, he said, so they might do more live events around the country from time to time.

Rey Mysterio, Jr., who comes from a Mexican wrestling dynasty, thought his wrestling days were over. He said he was looking forward to spending more time with his wife and family when the opportunity of this show came along. It’s all about “enjoying yourself and making the fans happy,” he said. “It’s been a good environment.”

The show naturally integrates the Mexican and the American culture of L.A. without too much effort, said Wagenen. “This show is a love letter to L.A. and the integration of Mexican culture,” he said.

Aside from El Rey Network, Lucha Underground is available on iTunes, where it went to the top 10 shows on its first week and is #1 in the sports category, said Wagenen. They’re also looking at international deals, he said.

And, judging from the enthusiasm of the mixed and raucous crowd ranging from Mexican-Americans dressed in the luchador garb to Anglo families with small children, Austin is ready for more Lucha live.

Hashtag: #luchaunderground

View more photos from the event at Austin360.