Catching Up On Reviews With Erik Childress (SXSW '11 Edition)By Erik Childress
Posted 05/12/11 00:55:30
There are any number of ways to cover a film festival. Especially these days as social media and technology have advanced to allow critics, journalists and fanboys to tweet their immediate reaction to the films they have seen (or are still seeing.) As writers we either pick and choose which films to cover or have them assigned by an editor. We can work on filing coverage immediately after every film, thus reducing the number of films we can actually see. Or we can jam-pack our schedules each day and worry about what to cover later. (Sometimes much later as life intervenes.) I tend to fall into the latter category. Before this year's South by Southwest festival began, I filed my annual report on ten films that audiences should be putting on their schedule. It is now time to reveal ten more films I saw that you should be looking for in theaters, on demand, or simply demanding someone bring them to your town so you can enjoy them for yourselves.
You can already see my thoughts on Sundance (Win Win, The Future, Hesher, The Catachism Cataclsym), Toronto premieres (13 Assassins, Fubar: Balls to the Wall, Tabloid) that played at SXSW and four other films were part of my pre-SXSW coverage including Fuck My Life, George the Hedgehog, Inside America and Turkey Bowl, still one of my absolute favorites of this year's lineup. Those films had their own order, but as inspired by the always fun Flickchart, which allowed attendees to rank their SXSW favorites, let us rank ten more and then give a final rank to the positives.
Sometimes it is the height of pretentiousness when a filmmaker turns the camera on their self with only the loosest of disguises that it might not actually be a self-reflexive therapy session. Joe Swanberg clearly has heard the criticisms that have out-echoed any praise that has come with ushering in the era of Mumblecore. His films have certainly divided those who choose to look at his work as the end-all-be-all of arthouse minimalism. Those with less preconceived notions have seen a more up-and-down beat to his resume; the height of which was introducing Greta Gerwig to the world in Hannah Takes The Stairs and the truly excellent, Nights and Weekends, a film which made my Top 20 in 2008. It took Woody Allen until his 10th film to make Stardust Memories. Now, Swanberg takes a stab at introspection with only his 7th.
In Silver Bullets he is Joe, an indie filmmaker going through a career crisis and unsure if he even wants to make movies anymore. His usual leading lady, Kate (Kate Lyn Sheil), is also his girlfriend. She has been cast as the monster in a new werewolf film by Ti West (playing himself); a role that in Joe's fragile jealous mind might actually be typecasting. Of course, it's not paranoia if someone is actually following your girlfriend into flirtatious rehearsals. In response, Joe casts Kate's friend, Amy (Amy Seimetz) in his new film for a chance to make her jealous in the name of art.
It is a tricky proposition to provide commentary to the on-screen lives of characters that appear to be thinly veiled amalgams of their off-screen counterparts. We can comfortably criticize Joe as a filmmaker (just as he does himself), but how far can one cross the line into personal territory when looking at the man. They are his warts and he is exposing them for the audience, but where the line between fact and fiction blurs - in lies the heart of Silver Bullets.
The conceit that artists (especially of the indie scene) in some part may be living out their innermost fetishes on screen is both a disturbing and comical one that enjoys equal spotlight in this film. Are horror directors little more than stalkers themselves, terrifying women with only the eye of the camera watching? Can a guy with a camera and some willing participants just film whatever he wants and provide enough emotional context to not call it porn? That would be a harsh criticism even for the lesser Swanberg efforts, but no doubt he has heard such a thing from those who revile his work on instinct. Silver Bullets is an interesting piece of work that may lead to an even more interesting one down the road when we see how Joe responds to his own criticism.
For a guy whose films have been associated with dark themes and sometimes even darker sexuality, David MacKenzie went the other way on us. Though not without a hint of kink. Filmed in just under five days at a Scottish music festival, You Instead follows a pair of musicians caught in what seems like a desperate meet-cute. After girl band leader, Morello (Natalia Tena) playfully teases rock star, Adam (Luke Treadaway), a whackjob preacher proposes a truce in the spirit of the festival and handcuffs the pair at the wrist. With no key or tools to free them, the embittered musicians are forced to stand each other while trying to explain to their significant others they are along for the ride too. Adam must even join Morello on stage for her band's performance, sitting idly by the keyboard until he decides to finger a couple of notes.
It is here where a bit of magic begins to work upon the audience and we begin to appreciate the potential healing power of music. The impromptu creation of art is one of the more breathless sequences one can ever see on film. Even if it is just another rendition of Tainted Love, our recognition and fun of its re-introduction into these characters' lives is the kind of wonderful moment that should scoop up even those at a distance from the material and possess them to want to get up on their chairs and cheer.
Working from a script by Thomas Leveritt, Treadaway and Tena are still a slave to some of the same beats we expect from your average romantic comedy. (Most of the script was reportedly changed during filming.) But MacKenzie, along with his hand-held reality-show approach to the material, nevertheless finds nice personal moments for the characters in the middle of all this mud and frenzied contrivance to earn his bigger ones with each band's performance. Their suitors are little more than obstacles that, thankfully, never take advantage of a cuffed foursome in a tent. But Adam's bandmate, Tyko (Mat Baynton) and manager (Gavin Mitchell) amusingly bridge the prospering central relationship with their, alternately, gentle and aggressively drunk methods at finding women. Buy into the overnight courtship or not, You Instead is a surprisingly light romance in the midst of the festival chaos, fitfully captured by MacKenzie and crew. It might not achieve the same kind of truth and heights of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, but like a concert you may have been handcuffed into attending, it's a nice surprise that you can put into your memory until the next one comes along.
At the age of 12, Emily Hagins was making an old-school horror film that was documented in the film Zombie Girl. At 18, she was met with a standing ovation from the Austin crowd as her feature-length, high school horror/comedy, was premiering at South by Southwest. "What if the movie is bad?" was Emily's humbling response before the first images rolled. Would this be more than just polite response for her achievement at such a young age? Justin Bieber and the cast of Twilight deserve all the scorn they receive for their holier-than-thou approach to their "art", so perhaps Miss Hagins had earned at least the benefit of the doubt of not inviting too harsh a criticism if her work was less than the sum of its low-budget parts. Placation aside, I was happy to report that, though rough in spots, Emily Hagins has a better aesthetic eye for filmmaking than at least half of the filmmakers whose stuff I see at festivals every year.
Moving from zombies over to vampires, Hagins' film (which she also wrote) involves comic book geek, Paul (Patrick Delgado), who has an unfortunate encounter with a vampire during a robbery at the grocery store where he works. Unfortunate that he has also met Kate (the adorable Elaine Hurt) who shares his affinity for geekdom, but is also leaving for college. In an attempt to blend in as a member of the undead, Paul heads to the local SpaceCon convention where Kate and her friends are also hanging out. Things get more complicated, naturally, as it is also a potential smorgasbord for Vince (Devin Bonnee), the fanged greaser who turned Paul and his co-worker, Cindy (Lauren Vunderink), whose life choices have been whittled down to embracing geek culture forever with Paul or the vampire lifestyle with a much older bloodsucker.
There are hidden themes within the material that I am sure Emily will wish she had explored in the future. But My Sucky Teen Romance was never meant to operate on the same kind of self-important and bottom-feeding melodrama of Stephenie Meyer novels. The title alone says that. But that doesn't mean that amidst the fun and goofiness, that Hagins is aloof to more tender emotions. There is a real sweetness in scenes between Kate and Paul as they try to resolve their unusual situation and an honest rapport with their supporting players lending comic relief in both a meta and natural interaction between teenagers. Compare this cast to the ones in SXSW's Blacktino and Detention and it will only take one scene to know which one isn't forcing their ironic quips and exaggerations into the audience's lap. There are certainly passages for improvement, as any film professor would attest, especially in some of the action and terror beats. But Hagins has a nice knack for comedy on when to let it breathe for a second and when to punch it home. My Sucky Teen Romance is not comic horror in the vein of hyper-reactive fare you would find on Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel. It's much more accomplished than that and Hagins, I believe, can only get better.
If you can forget everything that the Saw franchise became in its seemingly endless sequels and especially what they bred in the horror genre, you might remember that the original film created by James Wan and Leigh Whannell was a real cut above the stasis of average horror we had come to expect. Both are real enthusiastic guys and their passion for making films shines through even when it is as disappointing as their Saw follow-up, Dead Silence. Their latest collaboration, Insidious, is more successful in trying to capture the same sort of mood of that goofy gothic tale, while paying a not-so-subtle homage to one of their clear favorites, Poltergeist.
Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne play Josh and Renai, the standard horror couple who discover living in the suburbs comes with some creepy dealings in their home. Unlike most of those standards though, their pack up their stuff and their young son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and high-tail it to a new home. Smart move for a change. Except whatever entities existed previously have followed them and are subtly making their presence known until trying to really make a statement by lapsing Dalton into a coma. Grandma Barbara Hershey (how weird is that to say?) seems to have some insight into what is going on (maybe she just saw The Entity) and the big guns, including medium Lin Shaye and a pair of paranormal activity seekers, are called in to solve the haunting.
The plot may sound as thin as a trip through the carnival spookhouse, but that only serves to discover the slowly discover the details on your own and to announce its intentions as being the kind of old-fashioned ghost story you might expect to see in black-and-white. (Though some pretty pronounced use of color brings along its own moments of terror.) Insidious makes great use of the kind of slow burn that the films of Ti West keeps failing to payoff with any satisfying effect. Wan's use of sound in both quiet and bombastic fashion is far more calculated than your average slasher film and the comic relief provided by Whannell and "" as the faux ghost hunters perfectly complements the sort of ridiculous explanations delivered with absolute authority. If Insidious disappoints in any way it is that its final act, while out there, is rather subdued compared to the over-the-top finales built towards in both Saw and Wan's underappreciated revenge tale, Death Sentence. Expectations as a fan of Wan's work notwithstanding, Insidious is still quite scary and a lot of fun to go along with, as scare scenes are mixed up and played with in a way where I felt shortchanged with Sam Raimi's return-to-roots, Drag Me To Hell.
Since his breakout documentary, 2004's Sundance favorite Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock has continued his own brand of social commentary through TV show, 30 Days, and the provocatively titled theatrical follow-up, Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? Spurlock enjoys poking the badger more than bludgeoning it like fellow social provocateur Michael Moore and he always goes about his business with a smile and a sly wink to the audience that they can have fun while learning. Product placement in the media has been around forever. Even Siskel & Ebert once dedicated a show to it being one of their bigger pet peeves when watching a movie. So, Spurlock has decided to see if he can make an entire movie on the subject paid entirely by the very companies who try to cross-promote their products every week in this imperfect, but frequently hilarious film.
Spurlock is seen making phone calls and going from boardroom-to-boardroom in search of the funding. The irony in the "no"'s he receives is that it is more about money and profit than the manner in which they will be portrayed. Morgan certainly gives his eventual sponsors exactly what they want, lovingly sipping the pomegrante juice that paid a million dollars for above-the-title rights and blurring out any competitors for exclusivity, but also has fun at their literal expense. Pitches for commercials he plans to insert into the film, wonderfully mock the advertising world, and variations of them do make it past the storyboard phase. In-between his quest for dollars though, Spurlock veers off into learning more about the process of one hand washing the other through filmmakers and Hollywood insiders, and the consequences of being beholden to the money men.
This aspect should be, by far, the most fascinating and damning section of the film. Anyone with a creative bone in their body should feel outraged how non-Hollywood suits can influence a director to change their mind, and only have their thoughts about Brett Ratner reinforced as he casually speaks about throwing away artistic integrity out with the Mane N' Tail bathwater. This section alone is deserving of its own documentary and is unfortunately only portrayed as a footnote. A segment involving the corporate influence over school lunches also feels like leftover footage from Super Size Me, a more focused film that probably made as many viewers hungry for McDonald's as it did those it outraged. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is more a genial satire of the industry than it is a mounting social iceberg. On some level it is a "duh" topic that you may not learn a whole lot about, but it certainly is fun while it lasts.
While I do not get a chance to see the short films at festival (aside from those attached to features), it was nice to have Chicagoan Giancarlo Iannotta reach out and hand me a copy of his. Short by the best definition of any weary festival journalist, My Big Red Purse is a brief document of an incident in the life of his mother, Pam. Mixing the first-person account of an encounter with a big, neighborhood bully in her youth with an actual, practically Technicolor recreation of the event, Iannotta tells a nostalgic tale of heroism that would fit nicely as an aside in a tale from cinema's golden age. Because it lasts only four minutes and ends on such a poignant, bittersweet note it is a film (for once) you wish was just a little bit longer, if just to witness the next encounter between mom and the big, bad bully.
Another documentarian seeking out a different kind of fantasy is Jeff Myers. Santa Claus is perhaps the most recognized symbol of any holiday or tradition in the world. Sure, he is an idea sold to children, but it is an idea that stems from history and one that represents more than just the crass commercialism he is often lumped in with. Tell that to Jack Sanderson. Late in life, he has lost his parents and he has no family of his own to speak of. So, in the search for his Christmas spirit he decides to become a rent-a-Santa for the holidays. And if all you think he needs is a suit, you would be sorely mistaken.
We follow Jack's dedication from dying his beard to attending an actual Santa school that is more than just capturing the look and vocal stylings. Short of an obstacle course, Jack and the other wannabe Santas must endure the various scenarios envisioned by teacher Susen Mesco of the AESS (American Events Santa School). After all, not every child wants a toy and in lieu of dashing their dreams on an impossible task, each Santa must delicately know how to respond when those issues come up. It leads to some really funny and even sad encounters as we begin to further understand what a character like Santa Claus can be for people of all ages. Myers also nicely incorporates the variations of the legend through experts and that fuels our connection for the real simple, but very moving payoff of Jack's journey.
Cynics amongst us might believe this to be a wee-bit creepy. But instead of inviting comparisons to other loners who might be looking for an in with the kids, this is a more uplifting story of an individual searching for meaning. The deeper representation of Santa as a holy presence is not used in any way to ward off those dismissive of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Rather, this is a more honest (and certainly less hokey) manifestation of a true Christmas story; the kind that should be added to the spate of annual holiday fare. Like perhaps on a double bill with Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.
You know the old tale about the slacker ne'er-do-wells who are suddenly forced to face responsibility. Tales is more appropriate, and of course you do. Now, remember the last time you were faced with such a film and it turned out to be the kind of honestly funny and sweet tale that is often failed by pandering filmmakers? Brian Crano's A Bag of Hammers turns out to be that rare tale that surprises in its maturity while never losing the reality of leopards trying to change their spots.
Your two slackers in question are Ben and Alan (Jason Ritter & Jake Sandvig), two best friends who specialize in the kind of phony valet service that gives you a ticket and then steals your car. If anything can qualify as their good deed of the day, it is renting out part of their duplex to the unemployed Lynette (Carrie Preston) and her young son, Kelsey (a very good Chandler Canterbury). When Alan's sister, Mel (Rebecca Hall) notice that living conditions over there might not be up to the child's standards, the boy's handsome teacher and former Child Services worker (Gabriel Macht) may be just the answer for the single mom. Or does Kelsey's situation stir up some old feelings in the pals to take charge, both of whom were the product of neglect and forged their friendship because of it?
It all sounds like a by-the-numbers script by Crano and co-star Sandvig, but they refuse to shy away from the harsher implications involved with Lynette and the economy, nor in the potential of a child being traded through the system for food stamps. The film does take some dark turns along the way, but necessary ones to shake the guys into a new reality (though their seemingly easy-to-trace valet scam is never in danger.) The first ten minutes of the film with Ben & Alan's banter perfectly establishing their relationship and a hilarious encounter with Ben's ex (a cameo by Amanda Seyfried) is funnier than the likes of any of the faux responsibility films we saw in 2010 (Life As We Know It, etc...) Those laughs continue throughout the film but never at the expense of some rich, dramatic truths.
Bravo to Crano and Sandvig for not cutting away from a bravura monologue delivered by Ritter (who deserves a shot in the next James L. Brooks or Judd Apatow production) that perfectly bridges the shifts in tone. There is also a wonderful bit of wish fulfillment for the future in a late sequence that recalls the strength of similar moments in (500) Days of Summer and Spike Lee's 25th Hour. A Bag of Hammers can't help but simplify the reality of the situation just a little, but that doesn't stop it from feeling more real than the spate of condescending trite that has come before it.
Duncan Jones' follow-up to Moon moves in so many ways. For one it is a fast-paced sci-fi thriller that doesn't need any reference to the inbound train it sets much of its action on to qualify it. Secondly it is a film filled with ideas to keep us on our toes about its time-twisting plot. Finally, it is a film that moves our brains with even bigger ideas lurking just beneath the surface to give us plenty to think over upon leaving the theater. As long as you don't think about it too hard.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Capt. Colter Stevens who has been chosen to partake in the Army's newest technology. By plugging him into this capsule, they have the ability to link him into the final eight minutes of a person's life. Why eight minutes? Because that is the brain's available recording time before it goes into permanent shut down. Sort of a black box of the mind. What can it be used for? Oh, say, there's a terrorist plot that has already gone down and you can put someone directly into the scene of the crime just minutes before it occurs to gather evidence. In this case, Colter's closest physical match is a teacher traveling into Chicago with his gal pal, Christina (Michelle Monaghan). Once he gets used to the transition, Colter can then move about the train, observe potential suspects and take action before it explodes in a fiery attack. This is not time travel though. As he is told by his voice on the outside, Carol Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), he cannot change what has occurred. But he can gather enough intel to prevent a second bombing. As time is a factor, everything else is deemed "irrelevant." Except to Colter.
The groundwork for Ben Ripley's screenplay is pretty evident when one could easily describe this as a mix of Groundhog Day, 12 Monkeys and Quantum Leap. Duncan Jones though appears intent on moving through the comparisons as quickly as possible and not treating the film strictly as another gimmicky chase thriller. We have a stake in learning the identity of the bomber only because of its implications of setting Colter free from his mission. How did he go from flying in Afghanistan to becoming a guinea pig for Army intelligence? Colter's journey is one of observing society's impatience when believing they have the rest of their lives in front of them. Whatever limits he is bound to by the nature of the source code experiment, he is still a soldier and if he cannot physically fulfill his mission to save lives, he is still determined to do it mentally.
Colter Stevens is not unlike astronaut Sam Bell from Duncan Jones' debut feature, Moon. Both are bound to a job where their employers see them as mindless drones held captive for a higher purpose. Sam was a symbol of the working class and Colter is one of our servicemen moved around the grid; identity unknown to the public in life or death. Gyllenhaal, like Sam Rockwell before him, emboldens Colter with a general humanity that makes us root for him more than just your standard action hero. Source Code does work just as well as an action film. It's well-paced glaze opens up the third act to explore further twists of the mind's eye, some of which may pause your forward-thinking while you also play catch-up on Colter's predicament. One final little twist does not entirely work and may find more skeptical viewers throwing the whole timeline under the bus. But a film that asks its audience to believe in the mind's acceptance of fate and an afterlife that may or may not exist should not have a problem with playing around with the science too.
It is almost a foregone conclusion that any comedy under the Judd Apatow header is going to be a must-see. With the exception of a few missteps like Drillbit Taylor and Year One, the resume from director to producer is unmatched in the modern era of comedic filmmaking. Too often perhaps he is often over-credited with just how well any project he's attached to works. Films from Superbad to Forgetting Sarah Marshall to Pineapple Express may have succeeded due to his rigid pre-screening process; stringing together the best stuff of a picture and still managing to fill an almost unheard of two hours with continuous laughter. Like those other standouts though, Bridesmaids boasts praiseworthy talent around Apatow though, starting with a director who can show the usual stand-bys a thing or two and a writer who gives the actress inside her best screen work to date.
That would be Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the script with Groundlings member, Annie Mumolo, and stars as Annie, a late 30s midwesterner who has placated herself into everything a woman her age believes they should have - a home, a job and a relationship. Except on the surface they all suck and she knows it. Her best friend in the world, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), had moved away but is now announcing her engagement and wants Annie to be the maid of honor. As she begins planning more humble outings suited for her friend's taste, Lillian's more recent best friend, the well-off Helen (Rose Byrne) starts interfering with more extravagant opportunities. Added to Annie's struggles to be the perfect guide to the altar are the pressures put on her by the other bridesmaids - Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Becca (Ellie Kemper) and Megan (Melissa McCarthy) - who all see this as their own little vacation from their humdrum lives as well.
Naturally, this leads to all sorts of complications with Annie failing to live up to (now) other's expectations and a growing rivalry with Helen that is destined to boil over. But this is where talent and comedic prowess come into play. Feig and Wiig have ample opportunity to just allow the humor to spill into disaster-laden set pieces and slapstick, but they find a great balance between the outrageous situations and staying true to the characters. In-between some of the physical and prescription-based humor, there is a wonderful subplot involving Annie's growing relationship with a cop, played by Chris O'Dowd as not the traditional Prince Charming, but simply a nice, blue collar chap that is the antithesis to her sexual dalliances with pretty boy Jon Hamm (who continues to impress as a comedic actor.)
We can tell that Wiig is interested in Annie and her problems and doesn't treat them as plot dramatics or just another chance to play goofy. This is a real performance and not just a scene-stealer (though she does that too.) Her natural charisma with Rudolph (helped by years together on SNL) sells their lifelong friendship immediately in a way that all the effort by Ginnifer Goodwin and Kate Hudson in the other recent nuptial comedy, Something Borrowed, couldn't pull off in the way those characters are written. Annie's blindness to her surroundings is a result of settling and not stupidity and Feig is careful not to put a one-word tag on his female protagonists. He is also not afraid to let them be as raunchy as the boys in a manner that comes from real desire and not obviously written quips a la the loathsome foursome from Sex and the City. Even the film's broadest scene (spoiled in the film's trailers) involving a dress shop mishap builds from misdirection with Feig (and particularly Rudolph) paying it off in hilarious fashion that is less about the gross and more about the unfortunate timing of it all. After one bad and surprisingly misogynistic romantic comedy after another written by women, here is finally one that doesn't alienate either sex and should easily garner a standing as one of the funniest films of 2011.
1. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
As the late-night wars took an ugly turn last year, the loser with the network but the winner in the hearts of his hipper fans was not the one named Jay. Team Coco flocked to his defense, but none of them really had the pull to get him back on the air. Therefore, the former Simpsons writer that so many thought would never make it as a talk show host after his spotty debut in 1994, decided to take to the road as a thank you to his fans, but also to keep himself working. The resulting documentary put together by Rodman Flender is a remarkable one, full of the laughs and spectacle one would hope to see in actually attending one of Conan's road shows, but also the kind of raw, backstage material that encapsulates what putting a tour like that on is all about.
We bear witness to the moment Conan and his team put the announcement of his summer comedy tour on Twitter - and - to the mere minutes later when the show was selling out. Then it's the realization that they actually need to construct a show. Part comedy and part music, Conan works through the rehearsal and early stops to fashion what works and doesn't. He may have even considered putting the backroom material upfront as some of the docs most amusing bits are the playful pestering of his staff, particularly his assistant, Sona. It's almost satiric in tone of the stories we have heard about celebrity demands and posturing, but it ultimately comes off as the kind of moving, symbiotic relationship that O'Brien may just need in working through his anger at NBC.
Flender and O'Brien do not shy away from the issue, but never resort to just turning this into a venue to take easy jabs. There is real hurt stemming from Conan's conversations about it and like someone working through a bad break-up, he is thrusting himself headfirst into work to keep that frustration at bay. Because the film does such a solid job at accenting the kind of palpable exhaustion we saw as Stillwater doggedly walked their last airline terminal in Almost Famous, O'Brien is allowed little less-than-hospitable moments as every fan and their family wants a backstage meet-and-greet.
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is as solid a showbiz documentary as seen of late when it premiered at South by Southwest and now works as an addendum to the disastrous Charlie Sheen tour which plays more like the I'm Still Here to Flender's equivalent of the Dixie Chicks' Shut Up and Sing. If Sheen wanted to see a torpedo of truth and what it's like to earn (or keep) the respect of his fans, he should show up at an early screening of Flender's film to appreciate the work involved in crafting a performance piece beyond having a third-rate comedian interview him on stage. Or better yet, just treat his audience to a screening of Conan O'Brien Can't Stop. They get a show, a movie and insight into a television star that, at least, for once they can say they got their evening money's worth.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|