SXSW came crashing through Austin last week, and I grabbed hold to one of the tentacles of this octopus of a festival, SXSW Film, and held on for dear life as I caught 34 films over 9 days, attended panels, watched Film Colossus do a live podcast about the storyline of a Kanye West Album (okay, so that wasn’t really film), and did my best to avoid 6th street (I actually wound up spending most of my time at Alamo South Lamar). SXSW always has a few logistical problems but this year on the whole felt smoother than the year before (and I cut them a lot of slack as they take over a major city for nine days).
The biggest grumble I heard from crowds this year had to do with the removal of most of the remote venues. Gone were the Marchesa and Alamo Slaughter, venues that catered to locals and featured parking. This meant more people crammed into other venues, and no where was it felt like Alamo South Lamar. Unfortunately, this lead to longer lines and many wristband holders not getting into films they really wanted to see. Of course this might be a not-so-covert ploy to get those wristband holders to spend an extra $1200 and get a badge but….
One thing that was VASTLY IMPROVED this year were three film bumpers that played before screenings, a series of thematic animations from Matt Reynolds. With an edgy design offering some fun commentary on things like breaking into the industry, they really captured the energy and excitement of the festival. (Last year’s bumpers ended up on my failure list so…) Reynolds is CalArts Experimental Animation MFA graduate.
So here is my break down of the festival in fives… as I like to do.
US AND THEM: Funny social class thriller from England (in the vein of Trainspotting – humorous and violent) about a group of low class hoods who hold a wealthy family hostage to make a point… or do they want the money …. Maybe they should have agreed on that first. Full of surprises and what I can only describe as Guy-Ritchie-ness. it’s the sort of social commentary film the Brits make best. And though this is happening halfway across the world, I couldn’t help but wonder why our own nation of toilers don’t do the same.
NOBODY SPEAK: TRIALS OF THE FREE PRESS: This eye-opening doc starts as an examination of the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker case but very quickly twists and turns into a much larger story, about the assault on the press, probably the most important story we need to be telling right not. The film has been updated since screening at Sundance which tells you how essential this issue is right now. It’s a great time to be doing a documentary about the trials of the free press (And maybe the worst time if you an editor working on it).
GOING TO BRAZIL: The funniest film at SXSW this year was this French upgrade on BRIDESMAIDS where a group of girls head to their former friend’s wedding in Brazil and end up accidentally killing someone during the bachelor/bachelorette party. On the run in a foreign country, they meet corrupt officials, drug lords, a scene-chewing father-in-law. Its amazing and clearly should be bought and remade for American audiences. But until then, we have this pitch perfect comedy featuring four super sexy and hilarious women running through the jungle with Uzis.
MAYHEM: Starring Steven Yeoh (The Walking Dead) as a disgruntled employee who is helping Samara Weaving, a woman whose house is being foreclosed upon, this kill-fest is aptly titled. When a virus that turns people into id-serving emotional explosions hits an office building, our heroes must climb the corporate ladder one floor at time, one murder at a time, and reach the CEO before the quarantine lifts. An amazing critique of corporate culture, the film is funny and bitter and very very bloody. Of all the midnighters I saw at SXSW (and I saw all of them) this was the one that held truest to the tone you want – splattery fun!
THE ARCHER: A competitive teen archer loses her temper and ends up in a juvenile women’s reform prison where the guards sexually harass the girls and a quick poll of prisoners reveal no one is in there for anything serious. Lauren (Bailey Noble – who played the only surviving half-fairy on Trueblood) uses her archery skill to break her and another girl out and cross a rugged landscape to freedom. Far and away my favorite film of the festival, an LGBT action flick (has there ever been one?) that has a great social justice message and is just a solid coming-of-age story. Do not miss this one!
Other favorites: Hounds of Love, The Strange Ones, Most Beautiful Island, Dealt, Gemini, Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web, A Bad Idea Gone Wrong
LAKE BODOM: Can’t talk about this one without spoilers, sorry. But I don’t think you should see it anyway so read on. This beautifully shot Finnish horror film revolves around two girls who lead two boys responsible for spreading dirty pictures of one of the girls out to a remote campsite to kill them. First of all, I don’t buy either of these girls as killers. Second, the biggest reveal, that there weren’t any pictures at all and the whole thing was a set-up by the other girl to turn her friend against her new love interest, makes no sense. At some point in time she would have demanded to see the pictures. And there are parents, and priests, and cops involved – someone would have realized there were no pictures. So the central hook of this is inherently lame.
68 KILL: I will admit I had fun watching this Midnighter-Audience-Award-winner but honestly the female characters in it were so offensive it was hard to make my peace with it. They were all STRONG… but the director seems to think that ‘strong’ merely means making a female be the one that initiates sex and is after money as much if not more than the male characters. Every female character seems to be another male-fantasy on screen and oh how nice, they all want to sleep with our lead character. Forcefully strong does not mean that have any depth. I was honestly embarrassed this was what our audiences voted for.
GAME OF DEATH: it’s Jumanji! But everyone dies! Seriously, that might as well be the pitch. Several issues with this one. Despite some great use of 8-bit graphics and ideas of killing as a game, the actual ‘game’ itself in the film is that you need to kill someone every few minutes or one of the players will die. Very uninspired. No rules, no board, no heightening of action, just the same thing over and over again. And the player deaths – heads blowing up – are not scary, they play as comedy, and in a hokey stupid-looking way (see above still – how did they think this looked good?). Then – spoiler next – when they realize they have about 20 kills left, they make the really inventive (actual complement) decision to go to the hospital and kill people who are going to die soon nyway. We are then treated to a great 8-bit gameplay montage of them killing people in the hospital. The problem is they must kill like 50 people in the montage. ???? So the film should be over half way into that. And don’t even get me started about the end-tag. Ugh. Yes, let’s touch our fingers to the piece of evidence covered in caked blood.
ALAMO FOOD: I’m going to come clean and say I HATE THE MENU at Alamo. When I first came to Austin like 15 years ago, the food at the Alamo was amazing. There was a Chicken Parmesan sandwich which I still think is the best I’ve ever had. Every time I went I was truly conflicted about what to order. Now the menu is full of chichi fancy pants items that are 1) difficult to eat in a dark theater and 2) just plain weird. Does anyone really want mini bahn mi hot dogs? Why not just serve a ¼ lb. all beef hog dog? A grilled cheese sandwich with goat cheese? The few things I can actually stomach I burn through in three screenings and yet I am usually there for 15+ screenings in a week. (At Fantastic Fest its 40 screenings). And that doesn’t even get into pricing. A $4 soda that cost them less than 5 cents to make? Does anybody really think that burger is worth $13? Let me advocate right here in print for a return to original Alamo menu. Meanwhile I’ll gladly hang out at Flix Brewhouse, Moviehouse and Eatery and iPic until I have to go back to Alamo for another festival.
THE TRANSFIGURATION: This film wants to be LET THE RIGHT ONE IN but with a black teen boy but it’s SO DULL and the kid CAN’T ACT – he has one expression. Plus he’s not really a vampire. (sorry spoiled it) he’s just a crazy person that thinks he’s a vampire. That could have been an interesting twist but was fairly obvious all along. The film plays a lugubrious snooze fest with dull kills and plot pulled so thin you can see through it. That said, the love interest (Chloe Levine) in the film is a real joy to watch.
SATAN SAID DANCE: I will admit this film was just not for me at all. It’s a series of moments – like watching someone’s facebook live stream once a day and getting a sense of who that someone is. Very experimental but the main character is not very compelling and there isn’t a strong sense of why this filming style is being used to tell this person’s story (what there is of it) so its an example of style overwhelming subject.
LIKE ME: Annoying film about an annoying girl who films herself doing a robbery in search of fame – Did I mention she is annoying. As is the man she kidnaps who for some reason ends up wanting to help her and take part in her exploits. I don’t know if the film was supposed to have a message or anything but it was just long scene after long scene full of ingratiating characters. Like Me… no?
PORNOCRACY: This documentary about the way free online porn sites have changed the industry covers interesting subject matter. Unfortunately, the filmmaker was more interested in being in the film herself than saying anything specific. She’s in like every shot. And she’s not even interesting. She just nods and looks slightly annoyed. She has a bone to pick because she is a porn director who is finding it difficult to make a living in this modern landscape, so the film is going to be inherently biased and really comes down strong on the ‘these girls are being taken advantage of’ side of the issue while completely ignoring the thousands of women who run their own studios, make their own material and upload it to sites like Clips4Sale, never dealing with the seedy sensationalist side of porn this film focuses on.
TWO PIGEONS: Wow, did I hate this film. A guy is living between the walls of another guy’s house and comes out every day while he is gone to essentially fuck with him. It’s like watching someone’s college roommate play pranks (things as obvious as changing the clocks or rubbing the toothbrush on your balls). (spoiler ahead) His goal is to make him move out, retribution to a real estate deal gone bad, but we never really meet any of the characters so it is very difficult to accept that anyone would go through this life just to accomplish what he does. Most importantly, there is about 15 minutes of actual story in the 90-minute film. We just see the same scenes over and over again. Sometimes you have an idea, and that idea is an idea for a short, and that’s what you should make it as.
PORTO: I should have known we were in trouble when prior to the screening the filmmaker bemoaned that his film was quiet and we should be careful when we crunched our chips. Critics are stumbling over each other the heap praise on this self-indulgent, high-brow, wear-its-influences-on-its-sleeves-like-epaulets, glorified student film that had the good fortune to land Anton Yelchin before his untimely death. I just hope there is something else in the can we haven’t seen yet so this isn’t his final release – not that he’s bad in it, it’s just the most sycophantic, wearisome arthouse wannabe I’ve seen. The filmmaker (Gabe Klinger) actually had the audacity to tell the audience during his Q&A that Jim Jarmusch was a good friend of his and Jarmusch told Yelchin that Klinger was the greatest filmmaker he hadn’t heard of yet. Even if Jarmusch did say that, you don’t repeat that. You let Jarmusch say it or you let the film speak for itself. The film itself, shot in one of my least favorite style, inexplicable aspect ratio (switching willy-nilly for no reason, or at least inconsistent reason), follows a one night stand that leaves two people longing for it in the aftermath. Again, there is about 10 minutes of actual story in this film. It’s mostly just two people wandering around the streets of Porto, sometimes alone, sometime together, revising spots they went to that night. The film even repeats entire 3-4 minutes scenes of dialogue as if they have new meaning later. They don’t really, the characters, though perfectly well-drawn, do not change much over the course of the film, and we never learn too much about them past the surface details they share their one night together. Neither of them have particularly original or perceptive ways of looking at the world, so I just ended up feeling I was trapped as a third wheel on a date with two people I found sort of self-obsessed and rather dull. Look, this is going to be a film that lots of artsy-fartsy film junkies droll over, but for me, besides the obvious signposts that any well-studied film student could mimic, there is little actual substance her. The filmmaker was insufferable and his film nearly put me to sleep. If I hadn’t ordered food (damn you movie theater with food venue choice!) I would have bailed after 40 minutes. I do think we can all agree on one thing though, GREEN ROOM is a great film.