South by Southwest 2008: 10 Films To Put On Your ScheduleBy Erik Childress
Posted 03/05/08 04:57:44
With all the film festivals I attend each year, I am usually hamstrung with trying to see so many movies that I often don’t get the chance to write about them with any immediacy. Other than the live reports I file back with Nick Digilio in Chicago at WGN Radio, there’s only so much time to write about a handful of titles at the length in which they deserve or even the warnings to avoid them at all costs. My wasted time does not have to be yours. It also poses a disadvantage to those of you fortunate enough to attend these festivals yourselves, usually finding out a day later that your money could have been better spent on the film down the street or just one theater over. While Sundance and Toronto are not usually conducive to seeing many of the titles in the weeks leading up to it, unless I’m invited to some early local screening or was lucky enough to see a few films at a previous fest, one of the great advantages to my hometown Chicago fest, my second home in CineVegas and the best pre-Spring kickoff around at Austin’s South by Southwest is that many filmmakers are gracious enough to provide me with a sneak peek. With the debut of this new series, I will be giving festival attendees a heads up of my early recommendations for the festival. When in town for any fest event, I’m usually jamming in five movies a day (at least) and I’m hoping SXSW will provide even more discoveries while I’m there. But, for you, the casual fest hopper, I’m throwing you a head start on ten titles to put at the top of your ticket list during South by Southwest’s 15th Anniversary.
We’ll do these alphabetically. No negativity here either. Just positive vibes. My apologies to some late arrivers in not being able to view your film at the time of this article.
Director/Writer: Clark Gregg
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Anjelica Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Brad William Henke, Bijou Phillips, Clark Gregg
It may seem a little unfair to begin things with a studio picture, but that’s just how the alphabet works and, besides, the film is just that good. Adapted from Chuck “Fight Club” Palahniuk’s 2002 novel, Choke tells the tale of Victor Mancini (Rockwell) who was bounced around from one foster home to the next thanks to his mother (Huston) who kept kidnapping him and telling him fanciful tales of the medical industry. Now a grown man and medical school dropout, Victor longs for the comfort of any female sexual partner he can find and duping restaurant patrons into saving him from choking. With mom now in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, Victor turns to a nurse (Macdonald) who has a plan for recovery that he would love to embrace if he wasn’t finally being saddled with becoming a good person.
That’s about as normal as I can make a Palahniuk story sound, so please be prepared if loads of sexual behavior and borderline blasphemic plotlines are beyond your comfort zone. If they are, then you’re in for a real treat. Cause past the “R” rating it earns, writer/director Clark Gregg keeps a large, beating heart at the center of it all punctuated by yet another stellar performance by Sam Rockwell, still waiting that public acknowledgement that finally turned Johnny Depp and Christian Bale into household names. Choke maintains Palahniuk’s voice for offbeat humor and self-loathing protagonists and if you stick with it through its reasonably short 87 minutes, you’ll likely be dragging your friends to see it when Fox Searchlight opens it nationwide on August 1.
March 12 – 9:30 PM – Paramount Theatre
Director: David Modigliani (Read Our Interview With David)
“Oh shit, there goes the neighborhood,” could have been the first words spoken when George W. Bush bought a ranch in the small town of Crawford, Texas when beginning his run for the Presidency. After all, he needed a base right? Something more the tuxedo-laden fatcats whom he later labeled as such. No, he set up camp when the cameras needed video of the old school cowboy from New Haven chopping wood. And with them he brought booming businesses and a sense of community pride that they were put on the national map. Of course, Crawford didn’t see much of him when Cindy Sheehan set up her own camp.
Sheehan is just a chapter in the last eight years of Crawford, but one no less important in David Modigliani’s documentary which chronicles another in a series of lasting cinematic metaphors about the Bush Jr. presidency. Nationwide approval gives way to protest and declining confidence in an administration that used and then forgot the country it was supposed to represent. Modigliani is there from the beginning which helps bring potency and unexpected tragedy to the lives of both Bush’s local supporters and his dissenters. Letting events unfold as they are, Crawford is both infuriating and amusing as when some of the townfolk debate themselves over Bush’s policies and occasionally fall victim to their own beliefs. Slanted towards the left without silencing the right (who do a good job silencing themselves), Crawford is another peg in the legacy of the Dubya White House. Visit the Website
March 8 – 4:00 PM – Paramount Theatre
March 10 – 11:00 AM – Paramount Theatre
March 15 – 1:30 PM – Paramount Theatre
Director: Kurt Kuenne (Read Our Interview With Kurt)
To write about Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary in any abbreviated fashion is both a disservice to its power and a service to its viewers who know little about the story of Andrew Bagby’s murder. Stamping it bluntly, Dear Zachary is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen and I am not prone to such hyperbolic statements. Andrew was Kurt’s best friend. They made movies together growing up. He became a successful doctor and then met the woman, Shirley Turner, who sealed his fate and all those who knew him. While the case fluctuated through the Canadian legal system, it was revealed that Shirley was pregnant with Andrew’s child. Kurt set out to make this film as a loving tribute to his friend, something little Zachary could have about the father he would never know. Little did he know it would devolve into a custody battle between Shirley and the loving grandparents who saw Zachary as all that remained of their son.
The circumstances that follow this case could have just been another compelling talking-head piece crying out for changes in the legal system, but Kurt Kuenne has remarkably turned this into a furious lightning bolt of reminiscence and outrage that is going to reach into each viewer’s chest and squeeze their heart like a tomato in a vice. Told in rapid-fire fashion that ingrains a wealth of information into your head without ever losing our grip on who the players are and what’s occurring, Dear Zachary unfolds like a masterful thriller that never loses respect for the wake its tragedies have left. And still, by the end when we’re exhausted and ready to collapse under the weight of our tears and anger, Kuenne has created an absolute love letter to the art of parenting; the natural skill that all too often is presented in its darkest terms in this medium. Few narrative films will leave you as shaken as Dear Zachary and it’s the best documentary of its kind probably since Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. There’s a lot to like and even love at SXSW this year, but I can’t imagine discovering a better film there than Dear Zachary. This is Oscar-worthy material and hopefully enough people on the committees will see it and cast a vote for next year. Visit the Website
March 10 – 9:00 PM – Alamo Lamar
March 13 – 9:00 PM – Alamo Lamar
March 15 – 6:30 PM – Alamo Lamar
Director: Erik Nelson (Read Our Interview With Erik)
From the producer of Grizzly Man comes another documentary with a larger-than-life creature you wouldn’t want to get in the crosshairs of. Author Harlan Ellison, one never shy to speak his mind, is put into the spotlight by Erik Nelson in all his cantankerous glory and delivered with the respect he deserves. Chronicling more than just an A-to-B career, Nelson simply lets the man (and a few of his ardent admirers) speak for themselves on the passion and the frustrations of a profession that is often underanalyzed and too frequently undervalued.
A one-man show of Ellison’s tirades and berating of stupid queries could have been just as entertaining, but Nelson treads head-on into what it is to be a writer; the process, the readers and the moneymen keeping more for themselves than for the actual artist. With a little help from Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman and others, Ellison’s lasting contributions to science-fiction and the medium in general are well-documented in-between interludes where Ellison himself reads passages from his work and reminds us how beautiful the written word can be when put into the hands of a true master. The segment where he recreates a scene from Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever” is enough for any non-Trekkie to want to pick up a pen and begin scribbling away. At times very funny and certainly unapologetic, Erik Nelson has given us a portrait of the man who was, is and will always be for generations to come.
March 8 – 9:00 PM – Austin Convention Center
March 11 – 9:45 PM – Paramount Theatre
March 14 – 9:45 PM – Paramount Theatre
If it’s the portrait of an artist you seek, then you may also be interested in Celia Maysles’ Wild Blue Yonder, about her self-journey to discover more about her father, acclaimed documentarian, David Maysles of Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens fame. There’s also the unique story of Chris Bagley & Kim Shively's Wesley Willis’s Joyrides, about the Chicago artist and occasional songwriter.
“WILD BLUE YONDER” SCREENING TIMES
March 9 – 11:00 AM – Paramount Theatre
March 11 – 2:30 PM – Alamo Lamar
March 14 – 7:30 PM – Alamo Lamar
“WESLEY WILLIS’S JOYRIDES” SCREENING TIMES
March 8 – 1:30 PM – Alamo Lamar
March 12 – 4:00 PM – Austin Convention Center
March 15 – 11:00 AM – Dobie Theater
Director: Caroline Suh (Read Our Interview With Caroline)
High school elections are something we can all relate to. Either from being a participant, a voter or owning a copy of Alexander Payne’s brilliant Election on DVD, this process is a part of our lives. And with the electoral process drawing more young people than ever, Caroline Suh’s FrontRunners couldn’t arrive at a better time. New York’s Stuyvesant high school is one of the most prestigious public schools in the country. It may not look much from the inside (something one voter hopes its elected officials can change), but like politics itself, such things can be deceiving. For within these walls, you will be witness to a smart and consistently funny look at the present and future backstage ramblings of getting elected.
Like the blueprint established by docs such as Spellbound, Wordplay and A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, FrontRunners introduces us to four high school students and their campaigning to make their school a better place and maybe pad their college resumes a little. We lose track of one rather quickly, but the progression of the popular kids vs. the overachievers (real-life versions of Max Fischer and Tracy Flick) opens up to more than just personality clashes. One of the great joys of Frontrunners is how it doesn’t shy away from the standards of what it takes to get elected such as race and how you present yourself on camera despite your qualifications. The kids of Stuyvesant have brains and opinions to boot, even if the occasional one arrives ill-informed. A portrait of insulated America, FrontRunners is a political documentary that for a change doesn’t pit left vs. right and invites all partisan followers to enjoy. Visit the Website
March 10 – 9:00 PM – Austin Convention Center
March 11 – 1:30 PM – Austin Convention Center
March 14 – 6:30 PM – Austin Convention Center
If elections and competitions are right up your alley, then there are two other features playing that you may enjoy. The first is Rachel Goslins’ ‘Bama Girl, the story of Jessica Thomas who ran for Homecoming Queen at the University of Alabama. It’s similarities to another current political candidate may just be coincidental, but as Miss Goslins so eloquently stated in an interview I did with her, “How could anyone be confused by political film about a charismatic, light-skinned African American underdog running for an elected position against an institutionalized white establishment?” The film’s subplot involving the on-campus “Machine” (think, COUGH, The Skulls) is worthy of its own documentary all by itself and maybe Goslins has started the ball rolling towards that, so check it out. There’s also Dori Berinstein’s Some Assembly Required, a fun documentary about a national toy competition started by astronaut Sally Ride and the various classrooms throughout the country all trying to design the next great toy.
“'BAMA GIRL” SCREENING TIMES
March 10 – 1:30 PM – Alamo Ritz
March 11 – 7:30 PM – Alamo Ritz
March 13 – 8:00 PM – Alamo Ritz
“SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED” SCREENING TIMES
March 9 – 11:00 AM – Austin Convention Center
March 11 – 1:30 PM – Paramount
March 13 – 11:00 AM – Paramount
Director: David MacKenzie
Cast: Jamie Bell, Sophia Myles, Ciaran Hinds, Claire Forlani, Ewen Bremner
Here’s a film that won’t be everyone’s Scottish cup of tea, but it stuck with me after a viewing at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival, partially because of a healthy crush on Sophia Myles. The protagonist from Peter Jinks’ novel shares that interest; albeit in a way that might make Oedipus blush. Jamie Bell plays Hallam Foe (the book and film’s original title) who has withdrawn himself on the family estate back to his treehouse after the death of his mum. He suspects stepmum (Forlani) may be involved somehow and when she attempts to add extra wood to that treehouse, Hallam flees to the city. It’s here where he spots the lovely Myles who bares a passing resemblance to mum #1 and he gets a job in the hotel kitchen where she works to keep tabs on her.
Far less disturbing than David MacKenzie’s previous film, Young Adam, Mister Foe is less (and equally) creepy as it sounds, particularly as you add in Hallam’s predilection to using his binoculars and climbing on the outside of apartment buildings to get a closer look. The Hitchcockian elements are actually much subtler than recognized, partly because the film is generally more a comedy than some Peeping Tom-esque thriller. His themes though are never more prevalent and our sympathy towards Hallam helps to wash over whatever lines society deems he is crossing. It helps to discover that Myles’ hotel manager has a little saucy kink to her as well, which is just a supplement to their growing relationship in the film. The scene where the two of them exchange colloquisms for their connecting parts is both quite sexy and amusingly educational. South by Southwest has a lot of big name narratives to choose from this year including its opening night (21) and this year’s second Judd Apatow production (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), but who knows if they’re any good, (OK, I’ll put odds that Sarah Marshall is), so why not take this opportunity to see something that may not open past the big cities? You might just like it.
March 13 – 6:45 PM – Alamo Ritz
March 15 – 11:00 AM – Alamo Ritz
Director: Daniel Stamm (Read Our Interview With Daniel)
Cast: GJ Echternkamp, Matt Tilley, Valerie Hurt, Michael Traynor, Konima Parkinson-Jones
The ad read “Documentary Filmmaker looking for suicidal individual to follow from first preparation to final act.” The responses came in and a subject was chosen. Daniel Stamm and company didn’t have much support from their collegiate superiors but the project moved forward. With an inoperable brain tumor inching closer to exploding the veins in his head, Matt Tilley agreed to be followed around on his final weeks saying goodbye to his family and choosing the method to which he would off himself on camera for all the world to see. He wasn’t trying to make a statement. He just wanted to end things on his own terms.
What all is real will be on the minds of viewers seeing A Necessary Death for the first time and it’s a credit to Stamm and the crew that it doesn’t just feel like another cheap knockoff of the gimmick that’s all of a sudden en vogue nearly ten years after The Blair Witch Project revolutionized it. Much like the little seen, Buy It Now, Stamm is able to diminish our misgivings over its authenticity by mastering the “documentary of a documentary” style and satisfying the gravity of the drama through situations that have more truth to them than a lot of staged situations in non-fiction. A little research will provide all the answers you need and the developments in Matt’s final days shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. But getting to those moments will spark questions within our own heads about self-destruction and the media’s complicity in controlling its direction. Actors or not, everyone involved does solid work. And if you’re squirming in your seat, it’s unlikely it’s because you are disinterested.
March 8 – 2:30 PM – Alamo Ritz
March 10 – 2:30 PM – Alamo Ritz
March 15 – 7:30 PM – Alamo Lamar
Also on the death front is a very solid documentary chronicling the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Daryl Wein’s Sex Positive reminds us of the contributions of Richard Berkowitz, a one time gay hustler who was one of the first advocates for his community to take up the cause of safe sex. Wein and Berkowitz never shy away from the seedier aspects of this period, particularly in his own experiences (which does include grainy video and less than appetizing photographs.) And it’s stunning how certain factions of this lifestyle actually fought him on this issue, providing a whole new perspective on the term “gay pride.” Definitely worth checking out as a lesson in history that many of us believe we have all the facts about. Also playing is Daniel Junge’s They Killed Sister Dorothy which examines the case of a 73 year-old missionary gunned down in the Amazon jungles. Fascinating to see the trial unfold South American-style and the late-inning twists which raises many more questions that the film doesn’t quite have the time to answer. Narrated by Martin Sheen, it would have been nice to learn a little more about Dorothy aside from the teary testimonials of her relatives, but otherwise a pretty interesting tale of philanthropy and conspiracy.
“SEX POSITIVE” SCREENING TIMES
March 8 – 4:15 PM – Austin Convention Center
March 10 – 11:00 AM – Austin Convention Center
March 14 – 9:00 PM – Austin Convention Center
“THEY KILLED SISTER DOROTHY” SCREENING TIMES
March 9 – 1:45 PM – Austin Convention Center
March 10 – 1:30 PM – Austin Convention Center
March 14 – 3:30 PM – Austin Convention Center
Director: Tom Quinn
Cast: Greg Lyons, Jennifer Welsh, Andrew Conway, MaryAnn McDonald, Irene Longshore, Tobias Segal, The South Philadelphia String Band, Nick Voight, Paul Blackway
Many films have dealt with the subject of divorce. Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is one of the more recently acclaimed titles even if it were more concerned with the quippy behavior of the New York intelligentsia than the real feelings of the victims of such separation. That’s where Tom Quinn’s The New Year Parade separates itself. Jumping headfirst into the separation of a family, elder son Jack (Lyons) knows the reality of the situation and tries to keep his more optimistic younger sister, Kat (Welsh) from the gossip and unpleasantness between their parents. Mom’s lack of sainthood is the catalyst for the break-up, but Dad’s anger can be too much to bear especially when it stems from the lack of loyalty his children have towards him as the more wounded of the pair.
Told primarily through the perspectives of Jack and Kat, Quinn doesn’t rely on huge dialogue scenes to get across their anguish. Instead he succeeds in keeping a minimalist approach without getting over-bare as many filmmakers tend to lean on when lacking a playwright’s proficiency. This is due in part to a wonderfully succinct performance by Jennifer Walsh as the younger sister, holding all her emotions on the next layer of her face and letting them go little by little in key scenes that offer hope she’ll be OK. Lyons is also very good as the protective older brother and while it all seems like a downer, you have scenes with The South Philadelphia String Band to alleviate the weight a bit. Don’t let the journey to Austin’s Dobie Mall Theater discourage you. It’s really only a 10-minute walk from the Paramount and this is one worth the exercise if you don’t have vehicular transport. Visit the Website
March 9 – 7:30 PM – Dobie
March 12 – 4:00 PM – Dobie
March 14 – 4:00 PM – Dobie
For other pretty good examples of off-the-beaten-path narratives, check out Jennifer Phang’s Half-Life, a mixture of family drama and animated fantasy that may scratch a few heads by the end but is certainly interesting enough and well-acted to warrant a look. Also good is Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy, a sort of African-American Before Sunrise/Sunset story of two twenty-somethings who do the opposite - share a one night stand and THEN get to know each other through various issues in their community. Very natural and nicely acted by Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins.
“HALF-LIFE” SCREENING TIMES
March 7 – 9:00 PM – Alamo Lamar
March 11 – 6:30 PM – Alamo Lamar
March 12 – 6:30 PM – Alamo Lamar
“MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY” SCREENING TIMES
March 9 – 2:30 PM – Alamo Ritz
March 11 – 5:00 PM – Alamo Ritz
March 12 – 2:30 PM – Alamo Ritz
Director: Jody Lambert (Read Our Interview With Jody)
Of all the music documentaries I’ve seen so far this year from SXSW (and there have been some entertaining ones), I’d say this is my favorite and certainly the one poised to be an audience favorite. Everyone knows Dennis Lambert. If not by name or face that’s because its been his words you’ve been hearing for years on some of the most familiar songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s. If you’re one of the song nuts who knows who sang “Baby Come Back” then you should know that one of its writers also penned Glen Campbell’s "Rhinestone Cowboy", The Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman But The One I Got” and the era-defining classic “One Tin Soldier.” Now a real estate broker in Florida, Lambert gets the Spinal Tap-esque opportunity of a lifetime when he takes up a Filipino promoter on touring in his native land. It seems as if Lambert’s one solo album (unsuccessful in the U.S.) is huge over there and here Dennis is two decades after his last hit getting a chance to play music again.
One of the unspoken rules of most musical biopics is that the subject has to be wrought with tragedy and self-destruction to either make their comeback more meaningful or the art that they left so much more meaningful. How refreshing is it to see a film that isn’t about just another A-level douchebag getting a memorial? (Last year’s Control can be Exhibit AZ67.) If there are warts in Lambert’s past (the worst thing seems to be a divorce) they are set aside to tell the tale of a genial family man and a terrific songwriter genuinely happy and blessed to be presented with this opportunity. Don’t hold it against him that he wrote the pop song voted “worst of all time”. (He considers it just another version of a #1 hit.) Filmed by his son, Jody Lambert, Of All The Things is like American Bandstand, Soul Train and Solid Gold all rolled up into a moving tribute to an artist who has had us singing along to his words for years even if we didn’t know his voice. Visit the Website
March 8 – 11:00 AM – Alamo Ritz
March 10 – 5:00 PM – Alamo Lamar
March 13 – 7:30 PM – Alamo Lamar
Vincent Kralyevich & Joanne Fish’s The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice is a fitting tribute to the legacy of Wanda Jackson, one of the first female rock ‘n’ rollers who helped bring rockabilly to the forefront through solo performances and tours with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis. Fantastic music highlights the film which becomes a plea to put her, deservedly, in the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame. If you want to know the influence Jackson has left to this day, one only needs to see Bruce Springsteen become as giddy as a schoolgirl at the prospect of her performing a show in his hometown. If Sweet Lady’s 70 minutes aren’t enough to fulfill your music quota, then you can add another 47 with Alex Walker’s We Dreamed America which delves into the American genres’ influence on the latest British musicians, including the band Alabama 3 whom fans of The Sopranos may have an affinity for. I also had some fun with Paul Owens’ Blip Festival: Reformat the Planet which celebrates the musical movement known as ChipTunes. Simply put, it’s the mixing of video game music and sounds. Quite hilarious when you imagine it. Even moreso when you see the frenetic dancing to the jammin’ themes from Super Mario Bros. Hey, it’s no more ridiculous than the repetitive noise you hear from your average club mix and I offer this film up as proof, even if it begins to get repetitive itself after a while.
“THE SWEET LADY WITH THE NASTY VOICE” SCREENING TIMES
March 9 – 11:30 AM – Dobie
March 14 – 11:00 AM – Dobie
“WE DREAMED AMERICA” SCREENING TIMES
March 12 – 11:00 AM – Austin Convention Center
March 14 – 11:00 AM – Austin Convention Center
“BLIP FESTIVAL: REFORMAT THE PLANET” SCREENING TIMES
March 8 – 2:30 PM – Dobie
March 10 – 5:00 PM – Dobie
March 13 – 2:30 PM – Dobie
Director: Morgan Spurlock
If you’re looking for an answer to that question, forget about it. If you’re looking for Morgan Spurlock’s entertaining follow-up feature to his acclaimed documentary, Super Size Me, then get yourself a ticket. Spurred on, if you will, by the anticipation of his first child being born into a world of orange alerts, Morgan got back on the dirt roads to seek out the various trails that the world’s most hunted man has left in his wake. Visiting the countries of the Middle East (but not without some extensive training in weapons and kidnap prevention), Spurlock searches for potential clues to his whereabouts and learns a few things about the usually faceless people we believe hate us.
What Spurlock learns isn’t exactly surprising and certainly isn’t a wealth of new information, but reminders are always welcome in the waning days of this administration and Morgan does it in such an entertaining manner that it never feels like some lesson in modern history. More of an extension of his always interesting FX television show, 30 Days, than the hammer shot that was Super Size Me to both our health and the documentary medium in general, but that’s just fine with me. There are some good laughs and even an eye-opener or two on behavior overseas and his ultimate message on how irrelevant this poster child of evil is more relevant than ever.
March 10 – 7:30 PM – Alamo Lamar
And that will do it for now. Surely with a number of films already under my belt I will have the opportunity to see some premieres and the presentations by filmmakers who didn’t send advance copies. Who knows? They may have warranted a mention here. Maybe next time. Until then, you South by Southwest attendees have a head start on ticket buying. I hope to have steered you in the right direction. Feel free to find me at the festival to tell me if I helped spend your money well and I’ll be happy to pass those sentiments along to the filmmakers, all of whom I hope to get a chance to meet in-between screenings and all the great food and parties that the festival has to offer.
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