Austin Film Festival 2010 Day Three. Mixed reviews on some docs and an amazing day of panels.
Oct 24th,2010

Austin Film Festival Day Three Rundown

October 23, 2010

1) Under the Boardwalk

2) Burned

3) The best day of panels ever!

Today was amazing. I saw a very good film and was completely ensconced in the world of Pixar. More on that later...

I watched two documentaries today that brought to mind my favorite question on the subject of documentary film. What is more important, the delivery or the subject? Is there more value in the content or the meaning of the film? I have always believed that the delivery is of paramount importance, and my viewings today proved me correct.

1) Under the Boardwalk (w. Craig Bently, Kevin Tostado, d. Kevin Tostado)

Let's get this out of the way up front, yes this is a movie about the board game Monopoly. It is also one of the most engaging, entertaining, and informative docs I've seen in a while. A documentary does not have to be about some loft, high minded subject (more on this later) in order to be effective.

So, why a movie about Monopoly. Well, for starters, most board games only remain relevant for about 3 years, Monopoly has been around for more than 75. Most board games have a fairly narrow audience, Monopoly has been played by more than a half a billion people and has transformed from a worldwide phenomena into a mainstay of global popular culture. Don't believe me? How many of you remember the first time you played Monopoly? You can't, can you. It's something that has always been there.

This film does a fantastic job of balancing two different story lines. One traces the game from it's origins as "The Landlord's Game," which was developed by Elizabeth Magie, Quaker activist and follower of Georgism (an economic theory that opposes land ownership). The game was originally meant as a type of propaganda, showing that land ownership and renting brings great wealth to some, while impoverishing others. The object of the game being to "bankrupt" everyone else was meant to illustrate how land ownership filtered wealth to a few. However, as the point of the game was to win, it didn't really succeed in painting the evils of this system, as everyone wanted to be the one ruining everyone else.

Through a long and lengthy journey the concept ended up with Charles Darrow who, during the depression, wanted to make and sell one game per day for $4 so he could feed his family. It very quickly caught on and became what it is today. Originally it was sold without the signature pieces, with instructions to use things from around the house, like thimbles or coins, when it became more popular they took inspiration from charm bracelets to create the now iconic pieces (I like the Scotty dog, because dogs are awesome, and that one is Scottish).

The other story follows a group of players vying for the world championship. Like I said, global. 41 players from all over the world compete to claim the title.

One could compare this film to "King of Kong," but that is only true from a basic cosmetic standpoint. The style of storytelling varies greatly between the two. "Under the Boardwalk," isn't as flashy and doesn't really have a this guy vs. this guy theme throughout it. There is a very social feeling to the tournaments and the competitors seem to like one another. There is no manufactured tension or invented villain, the players are presented as real people and you are allowed to make up your own mind.

This is what good documentary filmmaking should be. You take a subject people have some interest in (honestly, who doesn't remember playing this game as a kid) and presents it in a way that makes you want to learn more.

If you like movies, board games, history, comedy, a little drama, or just a well told story you cannot go wrong with this.

2) Burned: Life In and Out of Texas Youth Prisons (d. Emily Pile)

This one... Well, this is a tough one. The ideas of this film are very serious and important, but the delivery kills it. "Burned," follows two young men who have spent time in the Texas Youth Authority. One just released, the other appealing his case.

The facts are heartbreaking. Each of these boys were sent in because of sexual improprieties when they were very young. They weren't criminals, they were screwed up kids who needed counseling and help, and should have been there for 6-9 months. What they got instead were long, very long prison sentences. One getting out after 4 years, the other now looking at 21 years in addition to the five he's already served.

If you live in Texas then you are aware that TYC is a fucking train wreck. It has been poorly run and besieged by massive scandals. The subject matter is extraordinarily compelling, the people are real and heartbreaking, and the events are timely.

The problem is that it's not that well made. It's only 69 minutes long, but it felt like it took HOURS to get through. There are shots that linger for far too long with no real reason, some repetitive scenes of people talking to the camera, long scenes that don't really add much to the overall message, points that are hinted at but not really made (there is an attempt to put the blame on former governor George W. Bush, but that doesn't really go anywhere and fails to actually prove the point), and poorly structured information.

I really, really wanted to like this movie. This issue is very close to me. As a teacher I come across kids who I could see these things happening to and I really want to see the problems in this are addressed and corrected. While they are addressed here it is done so poorly as to almost be missed.

Some pieces of information are given way too late (the fact that the young man imprisoned for sexual impropriety had been raped when he was 9 should be something that comes out early on, not something that should be in one line more than half way through the film).

This film suffers from feeling unfocused, inconsistent, a lack of structure, bad sound mixing, slow pacing, and a lack of a unifying theme. There is a very compelling story here that could be told well. But this is a first time director and it shows.

Sadly, what could be an important film with a powerful message gets muddied down by unskilled story telling that ultimately robs it of it's punch.

3) AMAZING PANELS

I went to the Pixar Story Development Process and the TOY STORY 3: How 4 Years of Creative Agony Became 93 Minutes of Movie Fun panels today and both were absolutely amazing.

As much as I want to transcribe my notes, I have over 14 pages of them and that will get tiring for you and for me (it's just past 1 am). So, here is what my plan is. Campbell and I are going to record a Pixar show next month and I will go over these notes at length. Reading a synopsis won't really do them justice. I am very much looking forward to sharing this with you all.

If you want to know anything about it beforehand please let me know and I will gladly discuss it with you before the show.

Well, I guess that's it from me until tomorrow.