The 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival

Below is my schedule for SXSW 2008. As with most of these things, it’s an aspirational slate — though it is less aspirational than usual in this instance, since SXSW helpfully serves food during many of the screenings (the ones at the specially-outfitted Alamo theaters). That sounds trivial, but is a godsend when you’re trying to watch five movies a day. My plan is to hit the film festival hard for the first five days, and then relax for the rest of the week in order to see some concerts (the film festival at SXSW, though wonderful, is in fact mostly a sideshow to the music festival) and hang out with some friends in Austin.

Comments and reviews should go up periodically throughout the week.

Seen Pre-Festival:

Then She Found Me (Helen Hunt) – C+
Hunt herself is terrific, but the screenplay lurches wildly anytime the movie finds a rhythm, and all the ridiculous curveballs it throws at this poor woman just seem cruel. Might have been insightful if it had stayed still long enough to cultivate any of its insights, since a lot of the character work is strong. Colin Firth is surprisingly convincing; Matthew Broderick is creepy and virtually comatose.

Run Fatboy Run (David Schwimmer) – B+
A more conventional Simon Pegg offering than either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, but more consistently entertaining than at least the latter. Mostly just a really spirited rendition of the formula, with smart jokes and less-than-imbecilic characters (I liked how Pegg realized that Azaria was going to propose before he actually did it). It helps that Pegg is so damn funny; just his frustration at having forgotten his keys for the umpteenth time is worth buying a ticket to see. There’s some great throwaway humor, too — e.g. the landlord’s tireless “who the hell are you?” refrain; the bakery customer desperate for something shaped like a fish. Simply outstanding in its genre.

Flawless (Michael Radford) – B
Weirdly moralistic heist movie, recommending that you steal from your corporate employer and give the money to charity. With that in mind, the resolution is disappointing — Radford should have bitten the bullet and made the Caine character a political fanatic, which at least would have driven the point home; his motivations wind up being predictable and not terribly interesting (though in fitting with the general theme of crime against unscrupulous business interests for the greater good). Works in genre terms because it keeps you on your toes; the mystery surrounding the central heist is effective, and making the Caine character ambiguous in the second and third acts is a smart move, even if the resolution is less than satisfying. Looks great, with a lovely 1960s-London glow.

Friday, March 7th

Humboldt County (Darren Grodsky & Danny Jacobs) – C-
This is a shame, because the screening was such a celebration, with friends of the two directors — who apparently went through hell to get this movie made — cheering them on and the rest of the SXSW crowd graciously joining them. But the movie’s a pretty lame indie mish-mash, tolerable as a goofy fish-out-of-water comedy and laughable when it abruptly gets weepy. Main problem is that the protagonist has no discernible personality traits beyond “uptight” and “awkward” at the beginning of the film; by the end, when he loosens up, even those go away. The pot farmers are supposed to be a tragic lot, trying to live a moral life but ridden with guilt over leaving the rest of the world behind; it doesn’t really work, mostly because the movie is so deliberate about giving each of the characters a Big Speech and Tragic Back Story. A couple of decent laughs here and there, but not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

21 (Robert Luketic) – C [Review here]

Otis (Tony Krantz) – C
A blunt-instrument 9/11 satire, which I know because the director got up and announced, “this is a 9/11 satire,” and because the screenplay contains subtle lines of dialogue like “I’m the decider” and “either you’re in the marriage or you’re out of the marriage.” The satire renders the horror film more-or-less ineffectual, since it requires the villain (representing the terrorists) to be pathetic instead of fearsome, and as a comedy it’s just not very smart, mistaking for funny things that are actually quite disturbing (e.g. a girl voluntarily performing lesser sexual favors on her captor to keep from being raped). Politically it’s nasty, condemning with a ludicrously broad brush — unilateralism is counterproductive, leading to wrongful death and angering the real enemy further, but cooperation is no better since the FBI (representing the UN, I guess) is filled with attention-craving nincompoops. Kind of bold in its sheer blatancy, but also silly for that same reason.

Saturday, March 8th

Secrecy (Peter Gallison & Rob Moss) – C+
Heavy on talking heads discussing basic civics — how government openness is an American ideal that facilitates democracy, etc. — but disappointingly light on actual information. When it does have details to offer, e.g. the fascinating (and all-too-brief) interview with Salim Hamdan’s Army-appointed JAG defender, it’s just fine, and getting high-ranking (albeit former) CIA officials to appear on camera must have been a major coup. But I’m guessing fear of being executed for treason kept those officials from doing anything other than ruminating vaguely on the need (or lack thereof) for keeping state secrets. Maybe I’m asking too much, but I expected at least some insight into how classification decisions are made. Interesting, but not substantive; you’re unlikely to learn anything new.

The Toe Tactic (Emily Hubley) – C
Don’t really want to badmouth this one, except to say that it will be a cold day in hell before I endorse a movie like this. Not My Thing, plain and simple — precious and quirky, with animated interludes implying that cute, boxy little cartoon animals play games with our lives and all we can do is try to maintain control. Cute and all, and probably perfectly acceptable if you like this sort of open-ended, effervescent, largely non-narrative “art installation” filmmaking. I just don’t, y’know?

American Teen (Nanette Burstein) – B [Review here]

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg) – B [Review here]

Shuttle (Edward Anderson) – B+
A few serious problems: the twist at the one-hour mark is blindingly obvious; just before that, one of the main characters does something outrageously, unforgivably stupid (I actually slapped my forehead). And I’m deeply conflicted about the ending, which is admirably bleak (so much so that it will probably kill the film’s chances of distribution), but seems to betray the smart, sympathetic protagonist, who surely deserved better. Despite all that, this is the best straight horror film I’ve seen since The Descent — the most intense, the most relentless, the scariest. The characters are aggressive and mostly smart, the villain is fearsome and hateful (Tony Curran is fantastic), and the premise (“An airport shuttle ride descends into darkness”) is brilliantly simple. I had guessed at the motive behind the terror (maybe “speculated” is a better word), but the blunt, stark final revelation still hits hard. Great stuff.
NOTE: After talking to several fellow writers here, I have come to realize I’m distinctly in the minority on this one. Fair warning.

Sunday, March 9th

The Wild Horse Redemption (John Zaritsky) [sleeping in due to time change]

They Killed Sister Dorothy (Daniel Junge) – B-
Not much of an environmentalist documentary or a hagiography, though it wants desperately to be both; the second half is, however, an absolutely riveting courtroom drama. I note that trials in Brazil seem much more exciting than trials in the states; we have much less impassioned yelling into hand-held (!) microphones and many more mundane formalities. The footage Junge obtained (God knows how) is remarkable, and it was gratifying to see that he’s as interested in the nitty-gritty of this stuff as I am. His coverage of the ongoing Brazilian land crisis is much more cursory and less satisfying, though it does serve to provide the context that makes the later courtroom scenes work so well.

At the Death House Door (Peter Gilbert & Steven James) – B
A fairly astonishing character study of someone who spent decades doing what I think is basically an impossible job: ministering to Texas death row prisoners as, one after another, they’re strapped to a gurney and killed. Clearly an anti-capital-punishment film, but it’s impressive in the way it never digresses; there are no wide-ranging explorations of the death penalty system, and the shocking details of how prisoners are executed in Texas (and there are plenty) all come from Reverend Pickett in due course. Even when the focus seems to shift to a side story — the probability that one of the inmates in whose execution the Reverend participated was wrongly convicted (and also took an excruciating twelve minutes to die) — the important question to Gilbert and James is how these events affected their subject. And that effect says more about the evils of the death penalty than a thousand talking heads could have. Rev. Pickett ultimately became an eloquent anti-capital punishment advocate, though I do wish the filmmakers had pushed him a little more regarding his ex-post justification for leading the inmates in his care to complacency about their executions, and thus his possible moral complicity (he just insists that fighting would have done no good). Other than that, it’s intelligent, respectful, tragic.

The Promotion (Steve Conrad) – A- [Review here]

Dance of the Dead (Gregg Bishop) – B
BAHAHAHAHAHAHA! An insanely fun moviegoing experience, though I wonder if the great time had by all at my midnight screening (wild laughter, applause no less than once every five minutes, a confetti explosion in the theater timed to an actual explosion in the film) indicates that the movie has commercial prospects, or that we are all enormous nerds who live for movies about a high school prom invaded by zombies whose kryptonite is loud rock music. Bahaha! Lots of delightful gore, impressive action on a low budget (the zombies launching out of the ground is a highlight), rampant zombie hilarity (my favorite was the one that barreled out of a closet and deliriously ran around the room in a plastic body bag), fantastic orchestral score — this movie rules.

Monday, March 10th

Crawford (David Modigliani) – C+
Sort of worth it just for the scrolling gas station display: “Welcome to Crawford, Texas — Home of President George W. Bush — Please come in and enjoy — Our delicious burgers.” Similarly, I loved the two-foot-tall George W. Bush doll that screams the President’s press conference platitudes (“It’s very down to earth”). That awesomeness aside, Crawford is unfocused, basically meandering for 74 minutes through the scenery of Bush’s hometown and vacation spot. Best when showing the effects of the Iraq war propaganda machine at its epicenter; the breakfast-table conversation between the token Crawford liberal and the coffee station owner is an awe-inspiring display of the mental acrobatics people will engage in to believe what they’re told. The half-hour about the protesters is mostly obvious (the influx of thousands of tourists and picketers into a town with a population of 705 is annoying? You don’t say) and spending any time at all with Cindy Sheehan is kind of unpleasant.

‘Bama Girl (Rachel Goslins) – B
For some reason, I was walking around pronouncing the first word of the title as “Bama” as in “Obama” rather than “Bama” as in “Alabama.” I felt a little better when the apparently drunk SXSW theater manager came up to introduce the film and described the Alamo Ritz as “a house of restaurant with many hardworking servants.” Movie’s interesting, though undercut by the fact that Goslins couldn’t get anyone to actually talk on camera about “the Machine” (a nefarious secret council of all-white fraternities at the University of Alabama that is said to control campus politics), making the discussion of it maddeningly vague. Works because the title character — a black woman determined to win the all-important homecoming queen title, which invariably goes to the white “Machine candidate” — is so fascinatingly self-possessed, and because it’s such a great allegory for this country’s impenetrable electoral process.

Explicit Ills (Mark Webber) – B-
I gotta say, it’s just great to see Philly on screen so prominently. Webber tries too hard to replicate David Gordon Green’s (largely overrated) brand of quirky naturalism, with the result that the film often feels affected and inauthentic. I zoned out at points, which might have been the point — Webber’s languid rhythms and the disconnected scenes seem calculated to create sort of a tone poem. But Lou Taylor Pucci and Paul Dano are great (though the latter does not earn the top billing he gets), and the whole turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts; the ending will likely be laughed at, but I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller) – B+ [review to come]

Battle in Seattle (Stuart Townsend) – D+ [review to come]
Clearly expensive, but just as clearly not expensive enough, because Townsend doesn’t have the budget to give the riot scenes any sense of scope or geographical coherence (the use of real riot footage helps the former but obviously not the latter); it’s just chaos. Dialogue is clunky, clich�d and absurdly declarative. And the attempts to lionize the protesters are undermined by the film’s refusal to engage with the politics — despite an energetic opening tutorial, we never learn (and the movie doesn’t seem to care) just what the WTO does that’s so awful aside from its corporate-friendliness. There’s a supposedly funny line toward the end to the effect that after the riot, the public still doesn’t know what the WTO is, but at least they know it’s bad. That Townsend apparently doesn’t see this as a problem is telling.

Tuesday, March 11th
We Are Wizards (Josh Koury) – B- [comments to come]
FrontRunners (Caroline Suh) – B+ [comments to come]
Shot in Bombay (Liz Mermin)
Second Skin (Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza) – B [comments to come]
Midnight Shorts (various)

Wednesday, March 12th
New Orleans Mon Amour (Michael Almereyda)
Choke (Clark Gregg)

Thursday, March 13th
No films!!

Friday, March 14th
Mongol (Sergei Bodrov)
The Assassination of a High School President (Brett Simon)

Saturday, March 15th
Cook County (David Pomes)
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (Kurt Kuenne)

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

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