Catching Up On Festival Reviews

By Erik Childress & Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/24/13 02:00:04

Here is a collection of select coverage from film festival premieres this year.

In what has become the fictional relationship version of Michael Apted's "Up" series, Richard Linklater's "Before" films have foregone the itch of seven years to revisit his primary couple every nine. In 1995's Before Sunrise, they met on a train and spent the night falling in love. In 2004's Before Sunset, they reconnected and ended up seemingly happily ever after on one of the great fadeouts in movie history. In 2013, Ethan Hawke's Jesse and Julie Delpy's Celine are still together, still in love, but about to confront the real-life consequences of their whirlwind fantasy romance. By the time this trilogy comes to its most fitting end, we realize that it may have been premature to label any other fadeout in this story as perfect.

Summer is coming to an end for the couple where they have spent their time at the invitation of a local writer. Jesse sending his son back home to his mother is the catalyst for a lot of unresolved real-world issues such as fatherhood, employment, divorce and location, location, location. Like many couples they are able to discuss such matters through the prism of suggestive passive aggression but delaying it long enough until it comes up at the worst time. In-between they continue to find interesting deductions on life's everyday mysteries and even walk-and-talk their way around whether their love was merely a product of their youth and if that spark and passion will still exist into their advancing days.

There is nothing in Before Midnight that fans of the first two films will not enjoy (except maybe the growing tension), but this is such a well-crafted screenplay that even those with no foreknowledge of Jesse & Celine's story will still be able to latch onto it as a deeply personal story that may indeed inform on their own experiences. Everything works in the film. Each conversation is carefully structured in a manner that we could sit there for two hours with every individual moment just to see where they take us. Hawke & Delpy unfold the layers of their characters, flaws and all, in such an intimate manner that as it finally grows into genuine confrontation we want to excuse ourselves from the room. These are the best performances of their respective careers. For a series of films that is most memorable for all its talking, Before Midnight is the one liable to render audiences speechless with its perfection. When the lists of the greatest trilogies are made in the future, Linklater, Hawke & Delpy's deserves to rank alongside The Lord of the Rings, Christopher Nolan's Batman and the original Star Wars as one of the most epic of all. Because it is about all of us, the world and everything. (Erik Childress)

The idea of watching most of today's biggest stars sitting down to talk about their life and work might strike most rational people as boring at best and downright intolerable at worst. However, Harry Dean Stanton is one of those rare performers whose mere presence in a film can instantly galvanize an audience--no matter how shabby the rest of the movie might be, they know that things will be interesting as long as he is on the screen--and this documentary by Sophie Huber is no exception. Instead of the usual combination of talking heads and familiar film clips, this movie takes a more enigmatic approach that is more in line with its subject in which Stanton ruminates about his personal and professional lives, sometimes in the company of pals like David Lynch and Kris Kristofferson, offers up amusing anecdotes about friends like Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan, and even croons a few tunes like "Blue Bayou" for good measure. In addition, Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard turn up to discuss the making of "Paris, Texas"--the film that contains what may be his greatest performance--and Debbie Harry phones in to talk about the song she wrote about him. Throw in judiciously chosen clips from some of Stanton's career peaks (and even a nifty behind-the-scenes look at Lynch directing him in a scene from "Inland Empire") and you have a film as distinct, quirky, haunting and entertaining as the man it celebrates. (Peter Sobczynski)

Having previously chronicled the life and career of schlock movie impresario William Castle in the documentary "Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story," filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz now recounts the story of how a shy Baltimore outcast by the name of Harris Glen Milstead became an international screen icon through a series of outrageous cinematic collaborations with cult filmmaker John Waters (including the still-notorious "Pink Flamingos") in which he cheerfully challenged most commonly accepted notions of beauty, sexuality and what constitutes a light snack in the guise of the wildly bedecked drag queen known simply as Divine. Divine certainly lived a life tailor-made for the movies (including humble origins, instant fame, lurid excess, a desire to be accepted as an actor rather than as a freak and an unexpected demise just as he was about to have his mainstream breakthrough) and this collection of talking head interviews, film clips and archival materials is an entertaining enough overview of the man and his work for those unfamiliar with either. For those who do have a working knowledge of who he was and what he did (and that is likely to be most of the target audience), there may be a certain degree of restlessness as familiar stories are once again recounted by all the usual suspects. When the focus moves away from those old war stories to fresher material, such as his relationship with his family and his excursions outside of the Waters universe, such as the diva battle that cropped up between him and co-star Lainie Kazan on the set of "Lust in the Dust," it gets a lot more interesting (though I would have like to know more about his involvement with "Trouble in Mind," the 1986 Alan Rudolph in which he had a rare "straight" role as a mob kingpin). Although essentially an extended version of the DVD extras that Schwarz has been a leading producer of over the last few years, it is still a fun trip through memory lane that you don't have to stay up past midnight to watch and the clip of Divine being interviewed by a bewildered Larry King is almost worth the price of admission by itself. (Peter Sobczynski)

What begins as almost as an existential fantasy involving island strangers, a tree-bound boat and a mystery woman becomes something much more conventional but no less engrossing. Writer/director Jeff Nichols jumped onto the critical radar with 2011's Take Shelter, a film which I found to be a pretty standard "crazy-guy-knows-more" dramas with a cheat ending. Mud is more in line with Nichols' terrific first film, 2007's Shotgun Stories, which had plenty of plot to go around but also was about greater themes involving family, letting go and revenge. This is the film that truly delivers on that debut.

Two young boys, Ellis (an excellent Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) want to claim the aforementioned boat for themselves on a nearby Arkansas isle but discover it is already being inhabited. That stranger, identifying himself as Mud (Matthew McConaughey) tells them that he is waiting there for his true love to return and asks for their assistance in getting that boat in the water. Thus begins an adventure for the boys which starts as a project but becomes a complicated game of cat-and-mouse that weaves them through Mud's past, Ellis' present and an uncertain future for everybody.

Nichols guides us through the story with equal parts mystery and intensity all through the prism of a very special coming-of-age tale that some could view as a more adult Where the Wild Things Are. "Better to have loved and lost than to have ever loved at all" could have been the tagline for the film, albeit with a question mark. Mud & Ellis' connection goes deeper than just holidays of weekend repairs as each will share the memory of their first loves with the uncertainty of being loved back and whether that love can survive growing up. The thought of love and romance being an irresponsible distraction from adulthood and responsibility resonate through the consequences and makes us consider who are the ones that need to be loved enough to be set free. Mud is a beautiful, humorous, tension-filled and sad tale with more great work from McConaughey about learning the hard way that love and mud can be a synonymous mixture that we will always have trouble running away from. (Erik Childress)

Along with the many narratives to be found at SXSW, one can always count on their selection of documentaries. Especially as they feed into the music portion of their festival and there have been some terrific ones over the years. One worth checking out this year is the story of Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of female punk band Bikini Kill. (You may recognize their "Rebel Girl" if you have a weird mind like mine and remember Not Another Teen Movie. ( Hanna developed a fanbase crafting lyrics for a feminist movement that was believed to be dying in the early '90s and was a prominent figure in the underground punk scene until 2005 when she suddenly walked away from the stage.

Director Sini Anderson does a solid job of establishing the rise of Hanna and her cohorts at a time when Kurt Cobain was about to merge alternative music to the mainstream. Interviews range from Joan Jett to Portlandia's Carrie Brownstein about her influence and dedication as the film moves towards her near-ironic yet loving relationship with the Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz. Tonally the film takes an emotional if slightly odd turn in its final 15 minutes going from a vibrant, informative tale about Hanna to almost a PSA detailing her present. Through it all, Hanna is open and honest about her rocky childhood, battles with the fact-less press and her struggles since. Like any good biographical documentary, when it is all over we feel like we not just learned something but truly met somebody new. Over two decades of Hanna's life in just 80 minutes has us wanting more, not to mention the opportunity to share her story as a way to show that feminism is not an ugly word, nor are the hearts of the proud women behind it. (Erik Childress)

The mere mention of Harmony Korine's name is enough to send most cinephiles running for coveror at least into the nearest shower. The writer of the infamous 1995 Kids last directed the 2009 festival film, Trash Humpers, a docu-style film about folks in old-age masks that, well, humped trash cans. So lovely. Before ever premiering at last year's Toronto Festival, Korine's latest opus had already received a healthy dose of press thanks to the multitude of stills released containing its primary cast in striking bikini poses. As the cast included previous PG-rated teen stars Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, one could only grossly imagine the paces the NC-17 auteur would put them through. Most shocking of all is that while Spring Breakers takes some time to find its bearings, this may be the most confident and artistically-grounded film of Korine's career.

A foursome of college students (also including Mrs. Korine, Rachel) decide to head to Florida for the most obvious of teen rituals. Without a stake of extra cash to fund their excursion, they decide to execute a robbery on the way down. Though Gomez's Faith becomes increasingly detached from the immorality growing around her friends, the others begin adapting to it. This disconnect is further enhanced when the group are arrested at an out-of-control party and bailed out by local drug dealer, Alien (James Franco). Treating them practically like pets, the girls become further seduced by a lifestyle that college has no course for and yet are just smart enough to use what God gave them to give them the upper hand.

Though the film itself contains a big zero on the likability factor of most of its characters, that seems to be part of the point. How else is Korine looking at them when he opens with (and periodically sprinkles in) slow-motion footage of brainless, shirtless young people showing off their booze-fueled personas as if to flick off the world as the next viral sensation. Our protagonists are not symbols of girl power but a regression of the new generations forced to shake what they've got for a little bit of cash; the celebration of reality television brought front and center with slow-motion booty shots crossing a bridge of no return. Does Korine really think that? Who knows? But the film is slick, never boring and boasts a flouresecent color scheme by cinematographer Benoît Debie that is just as striking as the nubile bodies wearing those very colors. Plus, Franco's flipped turn as another drug dealer is nearly as entertaining as his work in Pineapple Express. Weird, stereotyped and even recklessly scary, most will believe that his arrival midway through is the necessary turning point towards anyone's enjoyment of Spring Breakers. If one is not turned off early by the collective generation we would rather discard, there is some rather interesting filmmaking being displayed by Korine - particularly noticeable in the early robbery sequence. Maybe there is hope after all for a generation once only concerned with sex and parties and nihilism. (Erik Childress)

The anthology V/H/S was quite the hit with the Sundance midnight crowd when it premiered just last year at the festival. As a part of that first crowd, I was generally underwhelmed with the enterprise. With the nature of horror anthologies being what they are (each has to end with a shocking or ironic twist) there was very little to surprise. Sure the fourth segment involving the background goings-on of a Skype conversation was clever and fun, but the wraparound story was dumb, the first segment had moments but succumbed to obvious expectations and Ti West's section was flat awful (a distinction he continued by being the worst of 26 films in The ABCs of Death, a more consistent anthology effort.) Even with less than enthused expectations, the sequel (retitled from the more clever S-VHS) had room for significant improvement and it is a pleasure to report that this film delivers the goods in a far more impressive manner. At least part of the time.

The wraparound story is only slightly less dumb this time around and the first segment (by Adam Wingard) about a guy with a bionic eye that records everything is mostly just noisy jump scares without taking full advantage of a potentially clever twist on found footage. Though, admittedly, it does boast one of the best (if most superficially pleasurable) solutions to getting ghosts to go away. The fourth segment (by Hobo with a Shotgun's Jason Eisener) also starts with great potential involving kids pranking their older sister and her friends but turns into an uninspired home invasion story that doesn't live up to its own title. (Don't look it up if you want to avoid spoilers.) In the middle of all of this though is what makes V/H/S/2 so worthwhile.

There will be arguments over which between the second and third segments is the best. Most will probably lean towards #3 co-directed by Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto. Evans is the guy responsible for last year's uber-insane, ass-kickin', ultra-violent The Raid: Redemption. His co-contribution may start off with a lot of talk but it builds towards a non-stop barrage of payoffs that truly puts Eisener's segment at a disadvantage. Twilight Zone: The Movie concluded with its two best segments. The V/H/S series still hasn't figured this out. One can recognize the all-out nuttiness that climaxes the Evans segment (and should climax the film), but my personal favorite is the hilarious, action-packed second chapter from The Blair Witch Project's Eduardo Sanchez & Gregg Hale. Only two words are needed to describe it - Zombie Cam. A third word could be any number of exemplary adjectives. In conclusion, V/H/S/2 has one less segment than its predecessor but one more great one. The wraparound hour may not be very good, but those middle 40 minutes are a lot of fun. (Erik Childress)

Every once in a while a horror film comes along that builds up a reputation long before the public gets their first look at it. They occur on the festival circuit (usually at one of the majors) where enthusiastic midnight crowds and the write-ups of their reaction tend to overhype what is really on the screen. Maybe because horror is a genre we really want to have a breakout success to bring more respect to it in-between the myriad of uninspired gorefests and under-reaching found footage borejobs. While I am often at many of these midnight screenings and witness firsthand a crowd's loud appreciation for a big kill or a shock, I am there looking at the film and not the experience. I'll be damned though if at the debut screening of Adam Wingard's You're Next at Toronto in 2011 I wasn't joining in on all the fun.

As if the world of horror needed another home invasion story. Though if you stop to think about many of the most positive horror experiences over the years (i.e. Them, its American "remake, The Strangers and Kidnapped) have been just that. The premise starts simple enough. A family reunion takes place at a big country house consisting of many of the stars of this generation's dubbed Mumblecore repertoire (Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, etc...) One of the sons has brought his new girlfriend (Sharni Vinson) along to meet the family, just in time for a trio of arrow-wielding terror-mongers crash the party and start offing guests. But there's more. So much more.

When Wingard and writer Simon Barrett begin concocting ways to dispatch their large cast (which also includes Barbara Crampton, AJ Bowen, Wendy Glenn and filmmaker Ti West) the film takes off in such a furious manner that you will still be grasping the last quality kill when the next one is already happening. Anyone not on board with Mumblecore cinema may take personal delight in seeing the horrible ways in which some of their regulars die while fans of V/H/S will have something greater to appreciate in both the pacing and the twists on the genre. Not quite in a Cabin in the Woods-sorta way but at least enough to make Agatha Christie wonder why she didn't come with this. Probably because she didn't want to be gross. But where Christie's fiction took you towards many of the very same solutions, You're Next ups the stakes to having its protagonists fight back and that only adds to the level of insane pleasure. It has taken nearly two years for You're Next to make it into theaters (it opens Aug. 23 from Lions Gate). Hopefully it has given its legend within the horror community just enough time to grow to make its delay worth the success it deserves. (Erik Childress)

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