Austin Film Festival 2009 Part Two

Music  |  Features
I don't know if festival programmers do this on purpose but sometimes you come across a documentary and a narrative that fit well together as companion pieces. This year the documentary Warrior Champions compliments the drama The Messenger

Melissa Stockwell in Warrior Champions

Warrior Champions
Whether they're embedded in Iraq for the Discovery Channel's acclaimed series  "Off to War" or filming about the drug wars and sky rocketing murder rate in Juarez, Mexico for the New York Times, Craig and Brent Renaud have never shied from the dangerous stories. But with Warrior Champions the filmmakers look at the other side of war by telling the story of America's paraplegic soldiers from Iraq as they strive to make the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Each of the four competitors they follow have distinct personalities and you find yourself rooting for every one of them. Although it's easy to suffer the tragedy of their stories I found myself feeling thankful that these are the kind of men and women serving our country. The film actually finds a way to make you feel hopeful, in spite of the athletes' obstacles, as they train, compete to make the team, then journey to China and return to their real lives back home. The strength of the human spirit rarely shines brighter than in this beautiful, inspiring piece of work.

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson in The Messenger

The Messenger
Adding perspective to a soldier's life is the wonderful drama The Messenger with Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson playing two soldiers whose job is to inform loved ones when their family members are killed in action. Harper's character is serious, intense, dealing with guilt after some heroic deeds in Iraq. Harrelson's has the experience of the job but not of battle. The Odd Couple pairing is what makes this script work so well. The more they learn about each other, the more they learn about themselves. One of the best "coming home" type films I've seen in a long time.

Alex Frost in Calvin Marshall

Calvin Marshall
The story of an over-achieving male trying to get the prettiest girl in the film is familiar enough but when the actor playing the main character (Alex Frost) actually looks like the guy who made the role famous (John Cusack) the imitation may be flattering; but in the case of Calvin Marshall it's kind of annoying. Calvin Marshall's (Frost) major league baseball dreams seem pretty much in doubt since he's barely made it onto his junior college team. But he leverages the position into dating the star volleyball player (Michelle Lombardo) who gets hit on by the baseball coach (Steve Zahn) who's alcoholic womanizing ways are catching up to him. The film is not bad, mainly thanks to Zahn's performance and Lombardo's beauty. But the filmmakers have tried way to hard to turn Frost into a Say Anything Cusack, and the original should be left well enough alone.

Bob Schneider Live at the Paramount
With Austin's reputation as a mecca for great musicians it is no small feat to be considered one of their best, as Bob Schneider has been for many years with bands like Joe Rockhead, The Ugly Americans and The Scabs. But it's his solo work that has been receiving the most attention recently. This live performance shows why. The filmmakers employ numerous cameras to good effect while sharing the intimacy and beauty of the classic, old Paramount Theater in Austin while Schneider and his band mix the old and new of his repertoire.

Alabama Moon
This is the kind of film your parents and grandparents are talking about when they say, "They just don't make kid films like they used to." And it's true. With a film world dominated by the likes of Transformers and Harry Potter there really aren't childhood dramas like the Tom Sawyer/Hardy Boys type features of the 40s, 50s and 60s. I'm not going to get into whether that's a bad thing or not but I will say that films like Alabama Moon, about a boy raised in the woods and struggling to adapt to civilization, need to do a better job of appealing to today's savvy kids who have been inundated with multiple forms of entertainment that Granddad could only have dreamed of.

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