SXSW 2012

March 3, 2012

I’m going as a civilian this year, not press, but I’m still hoping to jot down at least a few sentences on everything I see. Drive-by comments or links to something longer will appear on this page.

Seen Pre-Festival

The Raid (Gareth Huw Evans) B-  [This is certainly very impressive, and one can only admire its craft (the fight choreography and editing are masterful) and stand in awe of the pain that must have been inflicted on its stars to bring it to the screen. But it’s not actually all that thrilling or exciting — at least it didn’t seem that way to me as I let out periodic “oofs,” cringed in pain, and marveled at the acrobatic and remarkably realistic martial arts display. Those looking for incredible head-banging fight action won’t be disappointed, but it’s kind of humorless, and there are no stakes, and it’s not about anything. Don’t mind me though — the entire genre community is going completely nuts for it. {Here’s a slightly longer review.}]

21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Chris Miller) A-

The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim) B [Not being Australian, I’m left guessing at the precise contours of the political subtext here, but I’m guessing it has something to do with the country and its people and resources always being meddled with by outside forces — here, nefarious corporate interests who want to weaponize the venom of the extremely rare and thought to be extinct Tasmanian tiger. The film is a compelling, elegiac thriller, with Willem Dafoe as the titular hunter who is sent to backwoods Tasmania to find, kill, and dissect the creature; when he arrives, he finds himself in the middle of a long-simmering stand-off between blue-collar loggers and environmentalists, and gets involved with the family of a local scientist who’s gone missing. It’s a metaphor (Dafoe’s character is a servant of indiscriminate corporate greed posing as an ecological do-gooder) but a low-key one, and the story works on its own terms.]

 

Friday, March 9

God Bless America (Bobcat Goldthwait) C [A major step down from World’s Greatest Dad, which was an incisive and challenging look at what happens when a father realizes that his tragically-killed son was actually kind of an asshole. This follow-up about a middle-aged guy and teenage girl who go on a killing spree to revolt against the perceived idiocy of American culture is funny in the details (a reality show called “Dirty Girlz” features women shrieking things like “Did you really just poop in my fucking food?!”) but is ultimately just a one-note harangue; I kept expecting Goldthwait to turn the tables on his protagonists, having them realize that they’re being judgmental dicks, but he never does. And doesn’t the fact that his movie is playing to full houses at SXSW kind of refute his thesis?]

[REC]3: Genesis (Paco Plaza) C+ [I suppose I see the appeal of this energetic and reasonably engaging horror film, and give moderate props for having the guts to ditch the found-footage gimmick a third of the way through, but this just seemed really familiar to me — a zombie flick du jour. It’s occasionally funny, never scary, and seems to do nothing with its one glimmer of a clever idea (the zombies reporting to some sort of superior malign entity, glimpsed in only a couple of brief, creepy shots). Your mileage may vary, and note that I haven’t seen either of the first two films, to which this appears to be a prequel. (I have, however, seen Quarantine, the allegedly faithful American remake of the first film.)]

 

Saturday, March 10

Waiting for Lightning (Jacob Rosenberg) C- [Was immediately suspicious when the director got up and said that the genesis of the documentary was its subject, professional skateboarder Danny Way, asking if he wanted to make a movie of his (Way’s) life story. And I was totally right — this is a tedious, worshipful, borderline-promotional portrait with a misguided focus on Way’s personal history, which is no more or less interesting than one would expect from a skateboarding prodigy. Curiously, it’s a vanity project from which the subject is almost totally missing, with the exception of archival footage and a few very brief interview snippets, so we don’t even get the benefit of his own insights on accomplishments. That said, Way is clearly an incredible athlete and technician, and I was mostly happy just to watch him skate; stuck around for that and for the Great Wall jump, on which front the film certainly delivers.]

The Last Fall (Matthew A. Cherry) Walk Out [I don’t want to shit on this too much, since it’s well-intentioned and made by non-pros, and since it tells the important and underexposed story of how the life of a journeyman NFL player pretty much blows. But it is frankly amateur hour, and shouldn’t be at this festival.]

Nature Calls (Todd Rohal) C+ [A vast improvement on The Catechism Cataclysm, at least insofar as it doesn’t just stick a sketch character into a feature film and surround him with free-floating weirdness. I laughed quite a bit, and I could see myself getting behind Rohal’s brand of non sequitur vulgarity, but it’s still scattershot as all hell; some of his ideas (e.g. The Darrell Hammond character) are such a complete and total bust, it’s almost startling.  And I think he paints himself an easy target in his  protagonist, whose main distinguishing feature is being one of those poor saps who is passionate about something (in this case, boy-scouting) far more than anyone else around him. It also makes the odd choice of casting Patton Oswalt and giving him almost nothing funny to do or say.   Still, some good stuff here, and I even found the ending weirdly touching.]

Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow) B [Cuddly, adorable, and hugely entertaining, leaning hard on the considerable charm of its cast to merrily float through its offbeat high concept. Ultimately I’m not sure it amounts to much other than a loose meditation on companionship, but it just draws you in so adroitly, balancing the central mystery (inspired by an actual classified ad by someone apparently looking for a time travel companion, “must bring own weapons, safety not guaranteed”) against some really slick and funny character work from Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, and (to a lesser extent) Jake Johnson. (Plaza, in particular, has this way of seamlessly switching between deadpan and sincere that is really impressive, and one of these days should be recruited by someone with something more substantial in mind.) Kind of paints itself into a corner; the conclusion seems arbitrarily plucked out of the air, and I later realized that which of a few possible endings Treverrow chose didn’t really turn out to matter, though perhaps that’s to the film’s credit.]

Killer Joe (William Friedkin) B+ [review]

 

Sunday, March 11

The Aggression Scale (Steven C. Miller) B [Thought my psycho-Home-Alone comparison was clever,  but apparently everyone else thought of it simultaneously. Anyhow, once you get past the banal gangster stuff at the beginning, this is simple, vigorous, and lots of fun, packed with immaculately-staged action and featuring a splendid, booming musical score by video game vet Kevin Riepl. Has one great idea and runs with it; sometimes less is more.]

Tchoupitoulas (Bill Ross & Turner Ross) C [Might have walked out of this if that hadn’t required crawling over a dozen people; it’s not that it’s wretched, but I was frankly bored. I can certainly imagine getting engrossed in an impressionistic, candy-colored tour of nighttime New Orleans, but not one that looks like it was made on a camcorder and that one might as well watch through a screen door. A few nifty vignettes featuring NOLA musicians, entertainers, and other miscellaneous oddballs, but then the movie devotes 10 minutes to, e.g., following its preteen protagonists through an abandoned riverboat (I think), and I ask for the check.]

frankie go boom (Jordan Roberts) C- [This is sort of the prototypical SXSW movie I can’t stand — free-floating, self-satisfied outrageousness with no connection to any sort of reality, combined with a saccharine sentimental streak to render it “marketable.” Notable, at least, for casting some well-known actors way against type: I didn’t even recognize Chris Noth as an alcoholic former action star, or Chris O’Dowd (the cop from Bridesmaids) as the protagonist’s crazy asshole brother, and fans of Ron Perlman should just ignore the bad reviews and seek this out, because oh my fucking god. But apart from that curiosity and the occasional chuckle, it’s a bomb — an interminable barrage of dumb ideas soaked in indie quirk poison.]

Funeral Kings (Kevin and Matthew McManus) B [review]

V/H/S (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence) C+ [Maybe I’m getting found-footaged out, because I quickly became weary of what’s become the usual drill in this highly-touted anthology. It doesn’t help that the shorts steadily decrease in quality — Bruckner’s opener is the best, the immensely creepy bar scene in particular, and West’s film, which follows, has some genuinely unsettling moments and a great ending. Then Glenn McQuaid botches a fine idea, and Joe Swanberg and the directing team “Radio Silence” each contribute something nonsensical. (Swanberg’s formal punchline was also anticipated by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau in Silent House, which was finally released earlier this month.) And the wraparound sequence, directed by current indie horror it-boy Adam Wingard, is just stupid. The horror tastemakers seem to have fully embraced this, though, so you may as well check it out.]

Monday, March 12

Girl Model (A. Sabin, David Redmon) B+ [Several terrific movies in one: a riveting insider glimpse at what may be the most disingenuous industry on the planet (“modeling” – the kind that recruits poor girls from Siberia and sends them into debt and servitude under the guise of opportunity), a portrait of a model-turned-modeling-scout who is so clearly filled with cancerous self-loathing it’s not clear how she can even move, and — importantly for me — a peek at what life in rural Russia currently looks like. (Slight derail: I’ve never been to Siberia, but I used to live in the country, and the small town from which the film’s 15 year-old protagonist hails is so familiar to me I could cry — the grass poking through the asphalt, the logs by the side of the road, the banyas, the babushkas.) Unceasingly interesting, getting its points across with virtually no editorializing; a director’s voice is heard only once, when the filmmakers could only elicit what they wanted from a direct Q&A, and even then they let us connect the dots. Really astonishing the kind of abuse that even mildly desperate people will tolerate in an attempt to improve their lot.]

Scarlet Road (Catherine Scott) B- [Irresistible subject matter — it’s a portrait of Australian sex worker Rachel Wotton, whose specialty is providing sexual experiences to the disabled — and it’s a pleasure to spend time with the main character, one of those people who’s arresting on account of being completely comfortable in her own skin. But the film itself is pretty one-dimensional, not even attempting to grapple with the discomfort that many (if not most) have with the protagonist’s vocation, acknowledging it only as discrimination and bias — which it is, but there are more interesting things to say about it than that. It hems and haws about things that might be perceived as troubling, e.g. the price of Wotton’s services, and works overtime to portray her as a civil rights hero. Which again is probably true, but meh. A decent advocacy doc; not a terribly serious treatment of sex work or the sexuality of the disabled.]

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (Mark Duplass & Jay Duplass) B [Yes, it’s Duplass-lite, and yes, it’s so featherweight it’s barely there, but this early effort from the indie juggernauts — filmed before they hit relative commercial paydirt with Cyrus — is still plenty amusing, and still features their penchant for sublimating serious emotional conflicts into lightly comic and absurdly direct scenarios: in this case, they’ve made a movie about rivalry, jealousy, and deep-seated grudges between brothers by making a movie about two brothers who, in their 30s and 40s, resurrect a childhood Olympic competition consisting of 25 athletic events. It’s basically a film about adults acting like children, and the Duplasses know how to make that sort of thing funny (mostly by working very, very hard to make it plausible); it also occasionally manages to cut deep, e.g. when the Zissis character stubbornly insists to his wife, in the heat of anger, rebellion and competition, that battling his brother at age 40-something is “the most fun he’s had in the last ten years.” A fun trial run for their later stuff, and actually quite a bit better, I think, than the more ambitious but somewhat boneheaded Jeff, Who Lives at Home.

Eden (Megan Griffiths) B- [Begins as a generic sex trafficking thriller, then briefly becomes an exploration of complicity vis-a-vis self-preservation along the lines of The Grey Zone. Riveting for the short time that it actually complicates its protagonist’s moral standing, but it quickly becomes clear that that the film has no qualms whatsoever about the things she did in order to survive, and it soon locks back into the mode of competent, suitably outraged drama. Might be worth a try for an outstanding, ego-less performance by Matt O’Leary as a craven and banal psychopath.]

Lovely Molly (Eduardo Sanchez) B [Maybe the heaviest horror film at the festival this year, Lovely Molly is slathered in grief, hurt and trauma; a possession film where self-hatred, addiction, and painful memories do most of the possessing. Sanchez, who kicked off the whole found footage thing 13 (?!) years ago with The Blair Witch Project, flirts briefly and pointlessly with his protagonist recording some of the action, but then mostly forgets about it and shoots the rest of the film in bleak, handsome high-def; it’s not entirely coherent, but it manages to manufacture a couple of truly bone-chilling moments along with serious emotional stakes. Gretchen Lodge is fearless in the title role.]

The Tall Man (Pascal Laugier) C- [Similar to Martyrs in that Laugier has one grand idea and finds the most oblique and ass-backwards way of coming at it; the difference being that this time, his grand idea is incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid. Seriously: if you watch this, imagine the dumbest thing that could conceivably lurk behind the film’s supernatural-creature-abducting-small-town-children smokescreen — The characters are all different personalities of the same serial killer! Everybody’s Hitler! — then double the idiocy and you might begin to approach the groin-grabbing inanity of what’s happening here. Shame, because Laugier has a brooding, lugubrious style that I quite like (think the latter half of Martyrs), and a sense of place that is all too rare in this genre; the film is engaging, and there are some beautiful, lyrical, and tense moments here, particularly toward the beginning. Bummer that what Laugier has up his sleeve is just so indescribably and inexplicably lame.]

 

Tuesday, March 13

Citadel (Ciaran Foy) B [A horror take on urban decay a la Attack the Block, except harsher, more downbeat, and less nuanced about middle-class prejudices. It’s an extremely auspicious feature debut for Foy, a young Irishman; I didn’t find it as straight-up scary as some others did, but it is beautifully composed, painting a unique picture of industrial desolation  that’s somewhere between Soviet bloc and post-apocalypse. The expected cloudy skies and desaturated colors are accounted for, but there’s more to what Foy is doing here; even when the sun comes out, it feels ice cold.]

WE ARE LEGION: The Story of the Hacktivists (Brian Knappenberger) B [Slick, engaging, righteous advocacy doc about the massively decentralized hacker organization Anonymous. Fascinating stuff, though the movie seems a little naive about how much Anonymous has actually accomplished: DDoSing Paypal for a couple of days is totally awesome, but — it seems to me — also pretty quickly forgotten. And I think the Scientology protests were viewed by the rest of the world as more or less a bust, though the film insists otherwise.]

Extracted (Nir Paniry) D+ [Aaaaaaand this is why they pay Christopher Nolan the big bucks. Just terrible; Inception with none of Nolan’s attention to detail, and with a totally inexplicable focus on a cheesy plot about a junkie criminal’s redemption, as if we give a shit. And wait until you get a load of the ending, which might be the biggest non-twist twist in cinema history: the entire movie is about the fact that human memory is incomplete and unreliable, and then Paniry hits us with the dramatic revelation that — wait for it — human memory is incomplete and unreliable. To be fair to Paniry, the guy was apparently working on Extracted long before Inception hit theaters, but it just goes to show you how much raw talent it takes to do this stuff well. (I’m sure budget helps too, which may be unfair, but them’s the breaks.)]

Compliance (Craig Zobel) B+ [One of the toughest sits in recent memory for me, though there’s not a drop of blood in sight. I didn’t know the true story on which this was very closely based, and I just sank lower in my chair with each successive ratchet of the plot. The scariest thing was how utterly true and familiar it seemed every step of the way; people (even pretty smart people) really are this gullible, and the film is extremely shrewd about the subtle little ways that it’s possible to manipulate someone’s ego and instinct to defer to perceived authority to get pretty much whatever one wants. I’ve read some complaints about Zobel’s decision, roughly a third of the way through the film, to show the caller (and thereby remove any ambiguity about whether he is who he says he is), but I saw no problem: the movie has no use for dramatic irony, and a critical viewer disengaged from the real-life situation will be able to spot the sleight-of-hand that forms the basis of the prank from a mile away anyhow. (“I’m calling about the blond girl at the front register, let me see here…” “Becky?” “Becky, yes, we had it down as Rebecca.”) Loved the ending, too, with the final exchange illustrating the immense power of the instinct to lock into the expected social conventions even when it’s hideously inappropriate to do so.]

Intruders (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) C [I’m a big fan of Fresnadillo, particularly his masterful one-upping of Danny Boyle in 28 Weeks Later. His technical chops are on full display in this handsome, classical spookfest, but it just doesn’t make a ton of sense, and doesn’t push the emotional buttons Fresnadillo is aiming for. Like Lovely Molly, the supernatural elements here are basically a metaphor for childhood trauma and dark family secrets, but it comes off as contrived and cheesy rather than resonant; silly rather than frighteningly abstract.]

 

Wednesday, March 14

Sleepwalk with Me (Mike Birbiglia) C+ [Cute and decently funny and all, but I’m not quite sure what everyone is getting so excited about; the relationship stuff evaporates as you watch it, and the flick barely skims the surface of its one interesting idea, viz., dramatizing the development of Birbiglia’s comedy. And the centerpiece sequence worked better in the form of Birbiglia’s monologue on The Moth — not surprising, since the format is so much closer to the guy’s wheelhouse.  I’ll say, though, that there are glimmers of Birbiglia being a promising filmmaker; there’s one scene in particular that uses blocking and camerawork and sound design to suggest the delirium of exhaustion in a really interesting and unsettling way.]

Bernie (Richard Linklater) B+ [Linklater starts with a frankly not-terribly-interesting true story from some magazine article — a seemingly random crime of exasperation committed by a kindly, well-respected eccentric in East Texas — and turns it into an exquisite Coen-esque tonal high-wire act, as well as a(nother) showcase for Jack Black’s brand of strutting deadpan hilarity. No time to do it justice right now — I’ll see it again before its April release — but it’s just so beautifully calibrated, floating in the elusive no man’s land between affection and satire, and generating laugh after laugh while maintaining an undercurrent of barely-perceived sadness. And there’s one edit in here (I dare not give it away) that’s easily my favorite moment of the festival.]

The Babymakers (Jay Chandrasekhar) C [Not exactly a Broken Lizard movie — though it stars two of the troupe’s regulars and is directed by its leader, it was written by third parties — but it has hints of their anarchic spirit, and some stuff here, particularly in the beginning, is hilariously raunchy and nonchalant. (E.g. the anniversary dinner conversation about how three years of marriage may mean it’s time to take their relationship to the next level.) But huge chunks of the film are just miserably, aggressively unfunny, sinking almost (but not quite — never quite) to the depths of Chandrasekhar’s great shame, Dukes of Hazzard. Not worthless, but cannot offer anything resembling the intoxicating silliness of The Slammin’ Salmon, or even the confounding oddness of something like Club Dread.]

 

Thursday, March 15

In Our Nature (Brian Savelson) B- [Not much to say about this perfectly okay, somewhat stagey four-character drama about a young couple who retreat to a lakeside cabin only to be unexpectedly joined by the guy’s jerkwad father and his new, much younger girlfriend. The usual daddy issues are hashed out in ways you might expect, though Savelson does a nice job suggesting a real history among the characters (both guy and dad, and guy and girl), and the actors — particularly John Slattery and Jena Malone — are fun to watch.]

 

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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