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'Precious' time

Who wants to be the next 'Slumdog'? Lee Daniels' film might be darling of Austin festival, as well

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The Austin Film Festival has a knack for finding a low-budget, underdog movie and helping it along its merry road to Oscardom. Last year, the Little Movie That Could was director Danny Boyle's 'Slumdog Millionaire,' which ended up winning eight Oscars, including best picture.

This year, it's 'Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire.'

Like 'Slumdog,' it won the prestigious People's Choice Award in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. It also won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

And although it's too early to predict Oscar nominations, 'Precious' has a good shot at snagging a few.

Director Lee Daniels, a producer on the Oscar-winning 'Monster's Ball,' has brought to the screen a moving tale of an overweight Harlem teenager, Claireece Precious Jones, who is pregnant for the second time and is kicked out of school.

At home, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) has to cope with an abusive mother who thinks she's too stupid to be wasting time on an education. And when Precious is invited to attend an alternative school, her mother (played by Mo'Nique) does everything she can to keep her at home.

With superb storytelling skills, Daniels shows us all about Precious — and it's hard not to be appalled. She is sullen, uncommunicative and manipulative. And when she steals a bucket of chicken and eats all of it and then throws up, well ... let's just say she's less than attractive.

But we begin to see how wrong our previous judgments were, when Precious begins to reveal her secrets to a compassionate social worker (played with subtlety by an almost-unrecognizable Mariah Carey).

As with 'Slumdog,' we also discover hope amid the horror.

'Precious' will be getting a big media push when it arrives at regular theaters later this year. The rollout will probably be gradual, with an East or West Coast premiere in November and a wider release in December, when it is tentatively scheduled to open in Austin.

Entertainment powerhouses Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry have signed on as executive producers of 'Precious,' and Winfrey has said she plans to launch a promotional blitz on her television show and in her magazine.

Such help will assuredly boost box-office prospects. But 'Precious' can stand on its own merits when awards season arrives early next year.

'Precious' screens at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Paramount.

— Charles Ealy

Austin Film Festival venues

Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave.); Texas Spirit Theater at the Bullock Museum (1800 N. Congress Ave.); Hideout Theater (617 Congress Ave.); Alamo Ritz (320 E. Sixth St.); Alamo Lake Creek (13729 Research Blvd.); Arbor (9828 Great Hills Trail); the Independent at 501 Studios (501 N. Interstate 35); Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center (701 W. Riverside Drive.)

Luminaries at fest

The 16th annual Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference starts today. The festival, featuring some 200 shorts and features, runs through Oct. 29 at eight venues across town. The conference, with more than 80 interactive panels with Hollywood screenwriters, producers, directors and actors, runs through Sunday at the Driskill Hotel and the Stephen F. Austin Hotel.

Just a few of this year's guests: Ron Howard ('Apollo 13'), Matthew Weiner ('Mad Men'), Lawrence Kasdan ('The Big Chill'), Mitchell Hurwitz ('Arrested Development'), Woody Harrelson ('The Messenger'), Christopher McQuarrie ('The Usual Suspects'), Kirsten Smith ('Legally Blonde'), Tom Skerritt ('Alien'), Daniel Petrie Jr. ('Beverly Hills Cop'), Mike White ('School of Rock').

www.austinfilmfestival.com for badges and passes, as well as complete festival and conference schedules.

— Chris Garcia

10 must-see films

1. 'Serious Moonlight.'Cheryl Hines (best known as Larry David's wife on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm') directs Meg Ryan, Timothy Hutton, Justin Long and Kristen Bell in this twisted romantic comedy written by late actress-screenwriter Adrienne Shelly. The movie kicks off the festival, and Hines will be in attendance. (7 tonight, Paramount)

2. Matthew Weiner presents 'Mad Men.'Emmy-winner Weiner, the creator of AMC's hit series, screens one of his favorite episodes and talks about the program. (6:15 tonight, Alamo Ritz)

3. 'Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire.'Winner of the audience awards at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, this harrowing human drama is destined to be one of the most memorable movies at the festival. Starring Mo'Nique and Mariah Carey and directed by Lee Daniels. (7:30 p.m. Friday, Paramount)

4. Ron Howard presents 'Apollo 13.'This show includes much more than just Howard's masterful 1995 historical drama. Co-sponsored by NASA, the screening also features rare archival Apollo footage contributed by NASA and a Q-and-A panel with Howard; 'Apollo 13' screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert; co-star Clint Howard; commander of the Apollo 13 mission, astronaut Jim Lovell; and Jon Aaron, Sy Liebergot and Jerry Bostick, retired NASA Mission Control advisers who played key roles in the 1970 Apollo 13 crisis. (6 p.m. Saturday, Paramount)

5. 'The Messenger.'Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster play officers in the Army's Casualty Notification service in this timely emotional drama directed and co-written by Oren Moverman. Harrelson, Foster and Moverman will be in attendance. (7 p.m. Sunday, Paramount)

6. Steven Zaillian presents 'The Falcon and the Snowman' —Zaillian shows the classic 1985 drama he adapted from Robert Lindsey's Cold War novel. The film stars Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton and was directed by John Schlesinger. (8:45 tonight, Alamo Ritz)

7. Stewart Stern presents 'The Ugly American.'Stern shows the semi-obscure 1963 drama, starring Marlon Brando, which he adapted. Stern also wrote 'Rebel Without a Cause' and 'Rachel, Rachel.' (12:15 p.m. Friday, Alamo Ritz)

8. 'Alabama Moon.'Director and Austinite Tim McCanlies and star Clint Howard present this family-friendly adventure based on the novel by Watt Key. (4 p.m. Sunday, Paramount)

9. 'Tales from the Script.'Because this is a festival celebrating the screenwriter, this documentary, all about the art of script writing and featuring dozens of famous scribes (John Carpenter, Paul Schrader, William Goldman, Guinevere Turner), is a perfect fit. With director Peter Hanson and many of his writing subjects, including Shane Black, in attendance. (7:30 p.m. Friday, the Independent at 501 Studios)

10. 'Up in the Air.'This Jason Reitman comedy, starring George Clooney, is already a huge hit on the festival circuit. Reitman, who also directs, adapted the satirical novel by Walter Kirn. Reitman ('Juno') will be at the show. (8 p.m. Oct. 29, Paramount)

Five must-do Screenwriters Conference panels

1. 'Script-to-Screen: "Mad Men." ' Matthew Weiner, creator-writer of the AMC smash series 'Mad Men,' discusses the research, staff writing and production process of the show. (9 a.m. Friday, Maximilian Room, Driskill Hotel)

2. 'Script-to-Screen: "Valkyrie." ' Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie ('The Usual Suspects') talks about researching and writing last year's historical thriller 'Valkyrie,' which faced a famously troubled production. 'This is one a roomful of struggling writers will love to hear,' McQuarrie says. 'I couldn't have made this one up if I tried.' (10:45 a.m. Friday, Victorian Room, Driskill Hotel)

3. 'A Conversation with Ron Howard.' The Oscar-winning director of 'Apollo 13,' 'Backdraft,' 'A Beautiful Mind' and 'Frost/Nixon' opens his brain and shares his world of filmmaking, which has spanned a lifetime. Howard is this year's recipient of the Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award. (2 p.m. Saturday, Ballroom, Stephen F. Austin Hotel)

4. 'A Conversation with Steven Zaillian.'Zaillian, recipient of this year's Distinguished Screenwriter Award, chats up his art and the films he's written, including 'Schindler's List,' 'The Falcon and the Snowman,' 'Gangs of New York' and 'Searching for Bobby Fischer.' Moderated by screenwriter Sacha Gervasi ('The Terminal'). (9 a.m. Saturday, Ballroom, Stephen F. Austin Hotel)

5. 'The Art of Storytelling.'Filmmakers Shane Black ('Kiss Kiss Bang Bang'), Richard Linklater ('Before Sunset') and Tim McCanlies ('Secondhand Lions') talk plot, character, dialogue and everything else that makes a script bound to life. (1 p.m. Sunday, Ballroom, Driskill Hotel)

— Chris Garcia