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Wrapping Up The 2012 South By Southwest Festival

by Erik Childress

Summing up the experience of a film festival can be often skewed, especially if one is so inclined to attend multiple festivals throughout the year. Many of the big titles at SXSW this year I had seen at Toronto and Sundance, which only opened the door up to potential new discoveries of which there certainly were a few. Of the 23 films I got to see over five days in Austin (schedule snafus and shut-outs rearranged my original plan of 26) I liked only nine and unlike most festival stays, only truly hated 2 or 3. Plus, there was also the 19 films we covered positively before even setting foot in Austin, so overall I would have to label SXSW a success once again on the quality spectrum. This was my 10th year covering the festival and am already looking forward to my 11th. Below is a (nearly) complete recap of all the films I covered on the radio or right here at the site. And I will continue to add more reviews when I can.

(Features Reviews of: 21 Jump Street, The Announcement, Bad Brains: Band In DC, Beast, Beauty is Embarrassing, Casa de mi Padre, Compliance, God Bless America, Keyhole, Killer Joe, The Raid: Redemption, Safety Not Guaranteed, Scarlet Road, Sleepwalk With Me, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies, Wolf)

March 9, 2012 (The Babymakers, The Cabin in the Woods, Casa de mi Padre)
March 10, 2012 (The Announcement, Small Apartments, Wonder Women!: The Untold Story of American Superheroines)
March 16, 2012 (Bernie, Funeral Kings, The Imposter, Paul Williams Still Alive, Sinister)

Added 3/28/11 - The Babymakers, The Cabin in the Woods, Funeral Kings, King Kelly, In Our Nature, Leave Me Like You Found Me, Sinister, Starlet, The Tall Man

Not sure if there is such a thing as an "official" Broken Lizard film anymore. Their last, The Slammin Salmon, was really quite funny but relegated to very limited engagements in places like Milwaukee. Group member Jay Chandrasekhar has become quite the staple as a director of series television and even when he goes big screen like with The Dukes of Hazzard, he brings along his fellow Lizards for appearances. Jay might want to get the gang back together for another stab at their own feature, because in trying to make something from the work of screenwriters Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow (whose resume includes such comedy stinkholes like Say It Isn't So, Strange Wilderness and Black Knight), one is already dooming themselves to failure.

In the film, Paul Schneider and Olivia Munn play a married couple hitting the three-year itch of whether or not to have children. The Mister is having some problems in the "lazy sperm" department, but thankfully he donated quite a bit of it years ago to help pay for the engagement ring. Said good sperm has all but been used up at the clinic, so he devises a plan with his buddies (including Lizard regular Kevin Heffernan and recent Descendants Oscar-winner Nat Faxon) to hire an Indian mobster (played by Chandrasekhar) to break-in and nab the remaining sperm for his wife. Ah, marriage.

To say "this is where the film falls apart for good" might be surprising for those who already couldn't get past "lazy sperm" or Olivia Munn in a leading role. As crude as some of the laughs and situations are in the first 45 minutes, at least it was an occasional one before the film is reduced to disorganized criminals wading around in broken vials of man gravy. Of course, anyone familiar with the history of cinema where the sperm ingredient is given more than a shout-out or cameo appearance in films involving babymaking knows it is pretty much the recipe for comedy cancer (i.e. Frozen Assets, Funny About Love.) Paul Schneider seems to forget that his last name isn't Rudd and Olivia Munn, while given very little to do comedically, continues to show that she is better when off the script. Broad humor has served Chandrasekhar and his clan in the past, but this is a project that should have been aborted on the cover page once he read as far as "by Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow."

After two years on the shelf and such a generic title, an average moviegoer familiar with overly delayed features might believe they won't be missing anything if they skip The Cabin in the Woods in April. If they knew that it was not a quality issue - but an MGM bankruptcy one - and that the quality control was in the hands of Joss Whedon and frequent writing companion, Drew Goddard (making his directorial debut), they might be a little quicker to give it a try. And they should.

In an effort to not go all Hollywood Reporter spoiler, plot details should be kept to the absolute minimum. The trailer may tease a little too much for some's taste, but we learn quite a lot in just the first act of the film where the word spoiler should not even be a factor. We know there are five friends heading to the titular location for the weekend (all relative unknowns save for Chris "Thor" Hemsworth.) We know there is some laboratory that has the same area wired for video and sound. And from what we know from previous horror films, it is never a good idea to go snooping through old books, filmstrips or other such ancient periphenelia that reveal a history.

Joss Whedon would be happy for everyone to call this an instant game-changing classic, even if the idea of playing with the rules of the horror genre is hardly a fresh game. The fact that him and Goddard have actually discovered a fresh way to play within those set of rules is an accomplishment in itself. That it works as well as it does should delight even those who thumb their nose at the very films it is having fun with. Most of that fun comes away from the actual cabin where Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford relish their roles as the puppet masters, though what they are really up to is best left to discover on your own. (Whitford's registered disappointment at one moment produces maybe my favorite line of the year thus far.) The material at the actual cabin isn't nearly as gratifying and feels as played out as the films it is satirizing. A surprise order of kills is hardly as satisfying as studying the behaviorial twitches of people under pressure or of the influence, which seems to get lost in the shuffle. An early moment involving an owl would be best excised in order to preserve what should be a tremendous shock gag later in the journey. For the first two acts, The Cabin in the Woods works better when it is going for laughs rather than scares, but by the time the climactic battle comes around all bets are off as the film turns into a Willy Wonka funhouse of homage and carnage that is most satisfying. Not everything has to be an instant classic as there's no shame in just being a fine, good, fun film which The Cabin in the Woods by all means is.

If you heard that a film with this title was produced by one of the guys associated with Lucky McKee's The Woman, you might be expecting some horrific shenanigans around a graveyard. Rest easy though, for this is actually quite the enjoyable comedy along the lines of Superbad. The title actually refers to a pair of Catholic middle-schoolers (Alex Maizus & Dylan Hartigan) hip to the fact that, as altar boys, serving a funeral gets them out of class and some extra cash while cutting the rest of their classes. They pick up a third kid for their adventures; the square new boy in town (Jordan Puzzo) whose ethically-laced naivete runs counter to their casual rule bending. But the new kid is somewhat of a celebrity, having appeared in a Hollywood horror film that potentially gives them an in with the cute older girls, not to mention a chance to finally see that R-rated flick they've been dying to see. For the boobs.

Kevin & Matthew McManus' film pretty much has you laughing from minute one and onwards as Maizus' Charlie deserves placement alongside Jonah Hill's Seth and The Bad News Bears' Tanner for his matter-of-fact, foul-mouth exuberance. There is some scattershot transitions from scene-to-scene as the film tries to juggle the boys' pubescent interests with criminalities involving an older brother with a hidden chest and the backroom deals of a local video store owner (naturally played by Kevin Corrigan). But isn't that the life of a teenager without a driver's license or a job? Video stores and a thirst of the forbidden? Funeral Kings is likely to spark with guys of a certain age who remember such fonder times when their idea of getting in trouble was still akin to only being grounded and not arrested. The simplicity and randomness of what the McManus Brothers have done here is part of its charm and while it will certainly take a bit of discovering to achieve the status of other such demographic classics such as Stand By Me, The Goonies or any of the aforementioned, but why saddle it with such pressure? Video stores and boobs are forever, though unlike the kids here you probably will not be disappointed in the end.

Put four people in an enclosed, isolated space and you have the makings of a horror film, a play or, figuratively speaking, both. Having just gotten over Roman Polanski's Carnage, the Exterminating Angel of pretentious New Yorkers film (not a compliment), In Our Nature gets off to a similar rocky start in how it must keep all its protagonists from leaving the movie. But if you can make it past that - and the presence of John Slattery helps a bunch - Brian Savelson's film settles into a nicely mature story about airing grievances.

It all begins as Seth (Zack Gilford) is bringing his girlfriend, Andie (Jena Malone) to the family cabin for the weekend in hopes of proposing. They don't even make it to the evening before Seth's dad, Gil (John Slattery), shows up with new girlfriend, Vicky (Gabrielle Union). Though their arrival comes at a most inopportune time, this is far from the Frasier episode that mined the same territory for screwball situations. Gil and Seth's relationship is evidently strained, with one the pitbull businessman and the other a sensitive vegan and wannabe guitarist, so maybe their women didn't think too far ahead in finding excuses for them to stay. But even as the cliches threaten to stack up, the material begins to focus and the performances get ever stronger.

From the weed-laced porch conversation between Gil and Andie on, In Our Nature firmly impresses us with an acumen into not just being a by-the-numbers struggle towards reconciliation. It is filled with little gestures and then natural setbacks defined by years of behavioral annoyances. Though Savelson does right by his characters in his writing/directing debut, it is Slattery who not only fleshes out Gil into more than just a stubborn obstacle but also makes the rest of the actors better for being in his presence. Well before the Mad Men days, I was a huge fan of Slattery's work on Ed where he played the kind of elitist dick that you couldn't help but like even as he stood in the way of our protagonist's dream girl. And anyone who doesn't say Mad Men pops best when he is in the room is just lying. Here we get to see so much more out of what could be considered just another mopey performance from Gilford by projecting a great deal of the inner conflict that Seth carries along with him whenever he is in his presence. Savelson is careful not to expect a few days together to produce any long lasting cease fire between father and son, but settles on a nice moment that should satisfy an audience who might be hesitant to see a story that looks so familiar, when it really shows that good writing inside the same box can provide just the feng shui it needs.

Teenagers behaving badly and having no qualms about the damage they leave in their wake is rarely a recipe for cinematic interest, particularly when it is done through the eyes of the worst of the worst. The girl who goes by the name of King Kelly (Louisa Krause) is the star of an internet sex chatroom which she hosts in her bedroom under the nose of her parents. Kelly does not live a moment of her life that she cannot capture on camera with her trusty phone, leading to the film's overall gimmick of being constructed of nothing but camera phone footage. Kelly's self-responsibility is at a minimum until her ex-boyfriend takes back (or "steals") the car she insists is hers. The "theft" is a major annoyance that Kelly can nevertheless put aside rather easily to just party and pose until it is revealed there is more in the trunk that she is now responsible for.

Kelly is certainly not imagined as a heroine worthy of our sympathy, but Louisa Krause's performance is an energetic blend of hysterical ignorance and outrageous energy. We almost have no business having this much interest in her plight and whether or not she will come around at the right time to learn that she is not as loved as she might imagine. This is a world of sex, drugs and bad behavior that director Andrew Neel (of the great LARP documentary, Darkon) and screenwriter Mike Roberts infuse with a necessary dose of clever comedic timing so we don't instinctual wish the worst for these characters. As the film takes its darker turns, Krause and Neel show us that King Kelly is precisely the kind of movie Project X wishes it could be; a funny, dark, sexy tale about reckless irresponsibility and phoniness.

Films intent on showing us the unfortunate decline of a relationship can often be a tedious experience at best and an unholy terror at worst. How often have we described a film simply as "X-amount of people fighting for two hours" and how many people in a relationship (happy or sad) wants to spend time with them (in person or at the movies?) Adele Romanski (a producer on films, The Freebie & The Myth of the American Sleepover) makes her directorial debut on what could be mistaken for such a feature, but actually courts a far more even-balanced and fresh approach with the story of a couple not sure of where they stand, but keep trying.

Erin (Megan Boone) and Cal (David Nordstrom) are first seen setting up camp in Sequoia National Park. All seems calm. All seems happy. They make love. When they have their first fight, a minor one, we can hear that it is not actually their first, but a continuation of events that transpired after they separated some time ago. This is their attempt to make it all work again. Where absence may have made the heart grow fonder, whether it be a locked room or the expanse of the outdoors signifying the very essence of all nature, two people are likely to discover the same issues over again.

Romanski's script carefully plots its course into how these issues will be unearthed again and these characters' backstories come into focus without ever a necessity for flashbacks or broad exposition. Boone and Nordstrom play them as neither angels or demons. They are human with none of the Mars, Venus or Defending the Caveman nonsense. Leave Me Like You Found Me is a resonating treatise on monogamy and if the human condition is programmed for such a commitment or are we just replicants with a pre-determined lifespan on standing one another in close proximity. Containing one of the most bluntly honest final lines about long-term relationships, one could certainly program the film as an opening act to Blue Valentine. And if Richard Linklater ever got around to completing a Before Sunrise/Sunset trilogy, the fear is that the emotions (and not the lack of philosophical dialogue) would be in line with what Romanski and her actors have constructed.

The surprise screening at SXSW this year did not exactly live up to last year's out-of-the-blue showing 1981's classic Dragonslayer. Though certainly a step-up from the Chicago International Film Festival's annual disappointing "surprise", SXSW at least gave us a film not opening for another seven months. It may have helped that the writer of Scott Derrickson's third feature happened to be a frequent contributor to Austin-based Ain't It Cool News. Good on him for the achievement, but best that moviegoers take any praise for the film out of SXSW with a huge grain of salt.

In what, these days, can be considered a twist on the "found footage" gimmick, Ethan Hawke plays a once-hot, true-crime novelist who moves into the house of a brutal ritualistic murder and finds some actual film of the moment. That is not all that he finds though. From resistance by the local cops and his family not happy with the new digs even before they discover its history, he is also about to discover that those new house noises are more than just mere night terrors.

Right around here is where Sinister takes us down an old and way-too-familiar path just as we were settling in with the hope that supernatural entities would not provide the clues to the mystery. The nature of the crimes involved are spooky enough without having to resort to Hawke spending every evening walking slowly through his house investigating bumps in the night while his family rests comfortably. Call it frustration or boredom, but not even an appearance by Vincent D'Onofrio literally phoning it in as a professor of the occult can boost the been-there, done-that approach of the haunted house mystery. Certainly lacking even the atmosphere (darkness is usually just darkness) of this year's The Woman In Black, Sinister is just another overlong Twilight Zone episode (from the Forest Whitaker days) leading up to a final twist that is way too obvious to be worth the additional running time. On the bright side though, Scott Derrickson's Sinister didn't anger me the way The Exorcism of Emily Rose and his The Day The Earth Stood Still remake did, so I guess that's a step in the right direction.

Sean Baker's Starlet is a film that takes the old drama of two mismatched people looking for connection and makes it feel just new enough to keep us moving within the journey. The structure is familiar but the dynamics feel fresh. The circumstances look hackneyed but the casualness with which it moves towards its resolution feels right. We feel we know precisely where it is going and yet it turns the wheel just enough to keep us wondering how it will all play out.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) rents a room with her friend, Melissa (Stella Maeve) and her boyfriend, Mikey (James Ransone). While the two of them play video games and get high, Jane seeks out yard sales to spruce up her little corner of home. Deciding a thermos would make a good vase, she draws the ire of the elderly curmudgeon, Sadie (Besedka Johnson, in her film debut). Talk about bargains, for mere change Jane buys the thermos and discovers several thousand dollars hidden in the bottom. After using some of the money to buy some essentials, like a diamond-encrusted collar for her beloved dog Starlet, Jane tries to include herself in Sadie's life recognizing that companionship may be more important than money at this point in their lives.

Is Jane's newfound Samaritan-ship strictly out of guilt? The screenplay by Baker and Chris Bergoch never puts a direct tag on it and this permeates into further plot turns where characters are confronted with making choices of a moral certitude. Smartly the film allows these turns to feel motivated by the characters rather than a plot desperately trying to insert further drama into the relationships. Though a late hiccup in the Jane/Sadie dynamic feels a little forced, their reconciliation and eventual climax are both perfectly heartfelt, which some might deem impossible based on some of the seedier elements introduced within Jane's world. Both Hemingway and Johnson give solid, believable performances and one could guess that even if Baker & Bergoch's script didn't feel as natural as it does, we would still feel OK spending time with the two portraying their protagonists.

Don Coscarelli had a film at SXSW this year. But it was his re-edited Sundance premiere, John Dies at the End, and not this one that bears no relation to his iconic Phantasm villain. Writer/director Pascal Laugier earned his own cult status amongst horror fans with Martyrs, his 2008 exercise in religious fanaticism and woman beating. Whether or not that style of horror would put Laugier into one-trick-pony territory was left to be discovered with his follow-up. Fans of Martyrs may be pleased to hear that at least one lady takes quite a beating in The Tall Man, but after an intriguing setup lulls the audience quickly into disinterest and ultimately into abject silliness.

Jessica Biel plays Julia, a free clinic nurse in Cold Rock, the kind of town apparently branded in its foundation through foreshadowing. While jobs and money are in very short supply, it is the children of the town that are disappearing at a rapid rate and everyone fears an entity known as, you know who, is behind it. A local mute-by-choice child (Jodelle Ferland, continuing to clear her bingo card on playing odd kids) draws pictures of the hooded legend and warns Julia that he's coming. Which he does to snatch her child right out of her home, leading Julia on a furious chase through the night to rescue her daughter and unmask the mystery of the town's tormentor once and for all.

It would be very easy to mention one movie title that would collapse that mystery right here and now, but better you be disappointed like most horror fans will be. (SPOILER HINT: It was the debut of an actor-turned-director.) And likely all movie fans in general who may welcome the film tackling its issues with a more social than supernatural agenda, but find the outcome slow-baked in a glaze of outright silliness. Twists and turns abound providing potentially intriguing discussions or at least some familiar creepiness, but once they begin there is no turning back and Laugier's film sinks under the weight of its less-thought out ambition.

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originally posted: 03/29/12 07:55:09
last updated: 03/29/12 08:17:09
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