The SxSW Film Festival continues to show its predilection for originality and virulent temperment (certainly where SX Fantastic lies) but the reality borders between surrealism, sardonic repression and simple brutality. This generally avails a border of morality versus the pressures of a global world dominated by a gestation of wills that doesn’t recognize certain conventions.
Films #1 The first three films create a vision of the ironic where the simple rules of general living are misplayed but ultimately redeemed functioned by the selfless accepting at times of others.
“The Good Heart” tells the story of crotchety old bar owner (played with authoratative vindictiveness by Brian Cox) who must put his faith in something after a series of heart attacks leaves him fearing for his heart. Paul Dano, late of “There Will Be Blood” fame, plays his protege, a depressed homeless suicidal who simply does not want to confront life despite being a very old soul. A woman in the form of a foreign stewardess who is afraid of flying and thereby loses her job reeks of forced complativeness but the simmering wills of both Cox and Dano keep the tension and retribution at a steady level.
“Barry Munday” also tells a story of a man trying to play himself but in a completely comedic way. A serial lothario who basically has no game, the lead character shoots himself once in the foot too often and ends up paying for it…with his testicles which he loses as the result of an unfortunate and painful but nonetheless humorous incident on his part. Patrick Wilson, who seems to enjoy more and more at the prospect of playing complete losers, works on a different frame than “Watchmen” since here he plays the guy as a complete physical wreck so every move is an utter lesson in hilarity. His schtick seems almost subtle next to Judy Greer as a woman he apparently impregnates but doesn’t remember doing. In a light subplot, his paternity is questioned in his mind even though he doesn’t take a maternity test. It all figures out in the end but it is some of the supporting players in light parts like Jean Smart, Cybill Shepherd and Malcolm McDowell as the painfully sarcastic father of Greer who understands that his daughter is different. What was throwing me off after I saw the movie was the dirth of killer 80s songs used as music cues. My thought immediately runs to problems of distribution since these songs by the likes of Toto, Chicago and Gerry Rafferty are big ticket songs and figure prominently into the montages that quickly at times define the movie. They might sound good at a festival but without a distributor on board, the thought process of rights becomes concerting. All this said, despite any cornball factor, they enhanced the comedy with aplomb. Post screening before leaving the festival I found that director is inherently involved with “Rock Of Ages” now playing on Broadway which got clearances from many other bands so there might be a trick tactic for negotiation up his sleeve. The soundtrack would be a lot of fun.
In “Cyrus”, which was seen a day before leaving for the festival, the movie, made by the local Deplass Brothers who also made festival rounder “Baghead”, uses two effective comedians in the form of Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly who both function from different modes via Judd Apatow and Adam McKay. The instigation here of a black comedy is almost in line with “Cable Guy” in its implication of sinister behavior. The one perception that can truly define the ideal of the film is “heart”. You can feel the intention in which these actors function within the script. Jonah mentioned later in our interview that this is the most drama he has played but it is in that version you see how serious comedians can be. We see the best takes on screen but it does take a series of cause and effect to make that happen. No one is better at that at times than John C. Reilly because he can play both ends with willing vulnerabilty. The character John he plays here seems almost like he could be a over-the-hill version of Reed Rothchild, his character from “Boogie Nights”, whose game has failed him in middle age. Another exceptional performance that undoubtedly grounds the film despite some odd scenes with Jonah is the consistently impressive Marisa Tomei proving that her Oscar years ago was no fluke. It is a matter of playing the right material. She seems to thrive in these off-center roles. The movie ends abruptly presenting a sense of responsibility of the audience to commit to whether or not their attachment to the characters bears more consideration.
Parties The one thing about South By Southwest which can be both good and bad in a strange way is the way with badges the inclusion of the parties is guaranteed. Some function better than others which is a law of the odds, although the logistics of the PBS Party which was comparative of all three of the festival angles (music, interactive and film) left that soiree with a severe shortcoming in that hardly anyone could get in adding to the fact that shuttles were required to get to the party.
The key with SxSW (with the exception of the screenings at the South Lamar Drafthouse) is that everything is within walking distance or directly in the vicinity of the central Sixth Street area. There are literally dozens of hotels there but even staying out near 1-35, there is a quite effective (with the exception of Sunday night) metro system that can allow for late night screening and partying without having to resort to cab rides.
The day of the beginning structure, the Tweet House, which also had a significant presence at Sundance continued its prospect of showing how Twitter can indeed be a problem solving mechanism for the entertainment and interactive industry. Certain accounts of its effectiveness are replayed but the reality lies in if there can be a true monetization of its wares. That discussion was put to the test but some of the panels resonated as more promotional perspectives for the event’s partners than practical knowledge.
The one true highlight within the cocktails which began with the infamous Lone Star Beer was the reconnection with Ben Steinhauer, whom had been present showing his film Winnebago Man at the Edmonton Film Festival. Within that day, he had locked distribution with Kino Film International gauranteeing a theatrical engagement in NY along with with DVD outlay and foreign television rights proving another victory in the distribution battle for docs.
The Lone Star state of mind continued out on the patio where Maria Maria provided a stunningly tender short rib surrounded by a green bean chile concotion that went exceptionally smooth as bathtub filled with beer and ice compliment the girls relegated in Texas booth slinging the sponsor tequila.
The opening night film was Lionsgate’s superhero homage/send up “Kick Ass” which many related was much darker than expected. It started off purely as a more family friendly outing but apparently took on more of an edge. Because of its screening at Showest only days later, “A Good Heart” seemed more necessary despite finding out that it had already secured distribution through Magnolia Pictures. The after party at Buffalo Billiards proved energetic yet moderately subdued despite the venue’s rather roadhouse quality. The marinated sliders and pulled pork was sweet while the Miller Lite served in the circular bar remainder allowed one to keep an open watch on the particulars involved.
Unbeknownst to most coastal dwellers in LA and NY and probably beyond, the brand new state of the art facility: Spiderwood Studios, which contains many elements of what apparently Robert Rodriguez has been doing for years at his local Troublemaker Studios, has come to be. Located about 45 minutes outside Austin it boasts a rather large wrap-around green screen stage which is perfect for the virtual environments which both Zack Snyder (for “300”) and Darren Aranofsky (for “The Fountain”) ended up having to shoot in Montreal to keep budgets down. The party the studio threw on top of Speakeasy was a little too crowded for true interaction because of a poorly placed bar but its employees including a character animator from outside Los Angeles who attended Cal State but came to work in Austin, shows the pull that the area is gaining and the ability of jobs. The reality though is that what is necessary for a true filming approach (at least as far as the studios are concerned) is a place where execs can have a direct line to filming. New Mexico has that and to a lesser point parts of Louisiana. Austin does not have direct access from LA since travellers have to first go through Houston or Dallas which causes a direction problem.
Rodriguez’s operation is an exception to the rule because his entire function is self contained where everything from production to post to sound editing to score to visual effects are all done in house making him a one-stop shop. The great thing is that he is starting to expand the possibilities of his set up to other filmmakers coming under his wing which we are seeing with the upcoming “Predators” which he produced and “Machete” which he co-directed with his long time editor. The production and filming community in Austin is building but is a long way still from central despite its intentions. But what it does have is a city behind it.
The Big Stock Party at The Beauty Bar was, besides IFC, the most purely energetic and interactive party of the fest segmented into a small venue that many people did not find as it was slightly off the beaten path just beyond Red River road. Taking function up near the bar as the music permeated between rave, hip hop and 80s, Newcastle overcame the structure as party fouls were realized and rectified with a red motif that gave the place a light viscosity that made it almost warm while still being dirty. Bigstock’s claim was as the “Wal Mart of stock photography” as one partygoer described it. The reality is that if you are accessible with a quality product that is easy to use with releases built in, it is better than all the headaches using other methods would inevitably cause.
The IFC Party at Karma Lounge, like last year, was even more in tune than the comparable and gritty “Observe & Report” shindig. Being derailed from a screening takes some doing when one is focused but conspirators in the form of a triple threat of a festival director, an exceptional fun female line producer and her local married friend who claimed to have no knowledge of the industry except that “shots are good” motivated the evening. The key between a good party and a great party is the breaking down of people’s barriers so that honesty comes through and they can relax without worrying as much about “the job”. With So Co shots racing at a mile a minute, dancing on platforms brought back a similar situation from last year which shows a consistency of energy and action on the part of the organizers. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, especially if it is working correctly.
Hangouts Every once in a while from a film festival, you have to take a break from the rigamoroll which requires one to step outside the official spots. Unlike last year, your narrator found himself spending infinitely more time on 6th Street and not at the convention center unlike last year. The key is that 6th Street wants your business, and being that this is a college town, finding the deals and places to chill are as easy as opening your eyes, because you always find networking and contacts waiting to be made in these places without even trying.
The Blind Pig was the first spot that caught the eye on the second day of the fest. On the front of its windows, it was promoting its Crawfish Boil. Now most people on the coast and everywhere but the South and Mid South don’t get a chance. Austin is pretty much still a bit away. However this bar flew in crawfish (about 300 pounds) since it needs to be fresh and set about boiling immediately.
Being able to chill for a bit, drinking $2 Ziegen Bocks and working on plates of crawfish begets many conversation from a former model with a thick Texas accident whose boyfriend works at the bar relating that “girls have to get dirty to eat crawfish” to a former Florida resident just transplanted to Texas who missed lobstering off of Key Largo to a just graduated college student with a short in the fest called “Kelp” about a love affair of the aquatic kind, there was no shortage of discussion and trips to the outside where both locals and out-of-towners working on the little monsters. Another things to mention is that the crawfish were free along with potatoes and sausage as they lasted. The inference was just to keep drinking.
Before the last day’s quick video interviews in front of The Alamo Ritz, The Jackalope, which having read the local literature was ranked among the best bar food, prompted a quick lunch stop. The art on the walls is the first element that catches the eye with almost cartoonish but inherently stilted vision of horses with elements of movie personas while semi nudes reminiscent of those seen in “The Shining” but with white women baring breasts in almost sepia shadowed visions, give the bar a genuinely altered mindset that is both titilating and curious. But back to lunch, even without beer needed, the Black & Bleu Burger which was cooked in a blackened style was truly filling and exceptional along with waffle fries: quick, tasty and to-the-point, no frills but what you need.
Films #2 The second batch of films run from the optimistic to the excessively brutal past the line of depravity. All have a place with the latter two being one of five films selected as part of the midnight sidebar called SX Fantastic curated by Tim League, who is both one of its founders as well as the local maven responsible for the Alamo Drafthouses. Because of “Aint It Cool News” and Harry Knowles, Tim is now world class because the guy gets it. Filmmakers like Tarantino and Rodiguez love this guy because he pushes the boundaries, shows where guys like them came from, and has fun doing it.
Point in fact, during the introduction of “Outcast” on the first night, Tim set forth that he would be doing drinking contest. Being one not to be left out, others including yours truly committed to a chugging contest which would lead up to a pyrotechnic gunpowder burst on the front of the stage which didn’t happen. But the intention was good.
The intent before “Serbian Film” two days later was more deliberate but seemingly appropriate since the actual shot they did (which was called a Polish Tequila Shot [thanks Zebra Room!]) is meant to cause physical pain since it involves snorting salt, downing the shot and then squeezing line into your open eye. It was the perfect antecedent to that film.
But before the integration of that visceral darkness of epic and disgusting proportions, the local inventiveness of “Mars” shows an utter paradox to that later film in its optimisism and comfortabily. Director Geoff Hartlett is also a teacher at University Of Texas and understands the maintenance of balance in this situation. Optimizing proprietary software similar to what Richard Linklater did with “Life” and “A Scanner Darkly”, Hartlett uses the narrative structure to incur what for him would be the most interesting background to set a love story against, the looming presence of Mars and possible life. Less “2001” and more “Mission To Mars” without the reveal, the film understands its structure but owes in some ways a more than passing ode to that Brian De Palma film. “Mission” was undistinct with the exception of a scene outside the space ship where one of the astronauts, played by Tim Robbins, must sacrifice himself. Coupled with Ennio Morricone’s music, it is still a phenomenal moment of filmmaking. It however does prove that this arena of space has much drama that can still be played out in our lifetime. Some of the best moments in Hartlett’s “Mars” come inside the space ship where close quarters make one think of the different between life and oblivion. While not as inherently dramatic, the fact that the comparison can be made is a good one and shows the possibilities of the process.
“Outcast”, the first of the SX Fantastic films screened, takes on the vision of Irish folklore and magic. Taken from intentions of the craven overlords, there is a gritty realism to the way two warring sides take on the motivation of their survival. On one side is a rising soldier vying for power but needing a mission to bring it around. Like “Katalin Varga” [seen at the 2010 Santa Barbara Film Festival], one begins to see the political and sociolgical influence seeping into the popular culture [a fact that it is not lost on the later “Serbian Film”]. The Monster within is protected by his mother who is all too aware of her responsibility to keep her blood safe though the reveal shows a double edged sword. The romantic subplot meant to envision the two-faced mutation’s lack of control over his fate is rather plainly executed as a paradox in the end. The build up works but the pay off seems a bit undone despite best efforts.
In terms of a experiential ride that bring one full broad, “Serbian Film” is a motherf**cker. It is truly one of the most disturbing films this critic has ever seen. The only other one I can think of recently is “Cargo 123”, a Russian film which played at the Los Angeles Film Festival a few years back. “Serbian Film” and its sheer presence at the festival is polarizing among many as shown in discussions right after the screening. Even revealing the depths of its darkness cannot begin to explain it. It simply has to be seen to be believed and most should not. Quentin Tarantino mentioned some weeks ago at a panel in Santa Barbara that a “ride” of a film is one where you are totally immersed and almost want to escape. “A Serbian Film” does that. It is a jaw dropping mind f*ck of sheer horror that is utterly “horrible” in every bit of a “real” sense [if that is the right word]. It is monumentally brutal. The sheer hell that the lead goes through along with everyone he knows is simply too real in all respects despite realizing it is a movie. The last film that did that was “Invincible” by Gasper Noe but he did it only in one scene which lasted for 5 minutes. This one does it for a whole movie.
“Serbian Film” is not a movie for the faint of heart. In fact, it is a movie very few people would sit through. A good comparison is the film “Antichrist” which premiered at Cannes last summer. People were utterly polarized by that film with moviegoers walking out in the first five minutes. That film seems like kid’s play compared to this. The reality is that I would see “Antichrist” again. If I had known with this film what was coming, I would probably would have never stepped into the theater. But that is what the film is meant to do: kick your ass completely allowing you for the fact that you never saw it coming. That is its strength. The allegory, as related by the writer and director, presents the fact of the Serbian horror that is intermingled by its sheer brutality. This is evidenced in the villain of who believes he is making art when he has clearly lost connection with all reality but he has the brutality of others to force him along.
The filmmakers relate that this is a lesser version (in their minds) than the reality that was the stuff of life with the inherent genocide which spread through that country only a couple years ago. Being in the United States, many cannot possibly fathom that kind of suffering or degradation whereas in other countries it simply becomes their “reality”. While one cannot condone the level of sheer torture and suffering this film presents, it does present a very distinctive viewpoint that requisitely makes you question ultimately where media is taking us in a society where things have to be taken so far beyond the line to have impact.
To bring a bit of brevity that has nothing to do with this film, the Alamo Drafthouse both on South Lamar and at the Ritz on 6th Street excel in their comforting and hearty libations during the course of their films. The chocolate and peanut butter shake is simply heavenly in its countenance while the Bleu Burger is lusciously cool and vivacious with its intensive crumbles. Even when simply maintaining a hydration quotient with an ice filled glass of water, the seasoned fries, salted to perfection with queso and/or ketchup simply satisfies. The layout of the theaters with bar room like tables in front of all seats is utterly practical and fun adding to the moviegoing experience in ways that major urban areas could learn from.
South By Southwest continues to grow and build in its draw. The balance of its pertinance revolves in its ability to draw big name talent with the tendecies of indie cred. The festival itself sits close on the boundary to what Sundance once was: a commercially viable outlay threatened by the possibility of corporate overun on its outskirts. The cohesion of the festival and its function just below the radar make its a essential festival stop on the circuit with its balance of genre films (surrepticiously selected on par by SX Fantastic and Tim League) and the indeniable energy of Sixth Street which gives it the balance of a college town, the Wild West and Hollywood Central.