We wanted our SXSW '09 coverage to be pretty much wrapped up by this point, but then we figured ... what's the rush? At this point we'd be covering mostly the smaller films anyway, none of which have been seen outside the festival circuit, and it'd be stupid to pack our Cine spotlight into storage without shining it a few more times for the indie guys.
So yes, Drag Me to Hell was damn fun; Observe and Report was shockingly funny and unexpectedly ... dark; and everyone pretty much loved I Love You, Man. (Oh man, and don't even get me started on the Bruno footage!) Thanks to SXSW for programming some fun, flashy studio fare -- but now we're gonna tone the budgets down just a little. Not that it matters really. A movie is a movie is a movie, right? And I'd rather pick through any of the following flicks than deal with 80% of Hollywood's summertime output. (Ummm, fine. Let's say 70%.)
My first "little" favorite is a dry indie comedy called The Overbrook Brothers, which seems a lot like every "dry indie festival comedy" I've ever come across ... for the first few minutes. But once the tone is laid down and the two leads settle into an effectively fractious chemistry, it becomes a very funny road trip with a few moments of real insight and strange warmth. It's about two brothers (Nathan Harlan and Mark Reeb) who discover that they're adopted, and so they (along with one long-suffering girlfriend, excellently played by Laurel Whitsett) hit the road to an Austin adoption agency. Much banter, backbiting, and bickering ensues, but director John Bryant keeps a solid balance between absurd behavior and sincere heart.
Then we have Make Out with Violence, which I saw (and liked) as part of the Oxford Film Festival last month. But since I ran into the filmmakers ALL OVER Austin, and they're as sincerely cool as their film is sincerely ... different, I figured they've earned a second mention. It's a dry but compelling little coming-of-age story that's part funny, part weird, and has a zombie as a metaphor. Good enough for me.
We now turn you over to Cinematical legal correspondent Eugene Novikov, who has this to say about a film called Pulling John:
Like a lot of the docs at SXSW, Pulling John is hugely entertaining without being a monumental cinematic achievement. The topic is professional arm wrestling, and the focus is John Brzenk, the undisputed king of the sport, having reigned basically unchallenged for decades but having a harder time mowing down competitors as he gets older. Meanwhile, two up-and-coming armwrestling juggernauts, one Russian and one American, rise through the ranks. There's a nice clash of personalities, with the kindly, confident Brzenk contrasting the fiery and arrogant Travis Bagent, and the thoughtful, oddly philosophical (for someone so enormous) Alexey Voyevoda. The subject is a fun curiosity, the movie moves briskly and could easily have been longer than its 75 minutes, and the inevitable "big game" is exciting.
Then we look to William of Goss, who opines on the indie drama Afterschool:
Most juvenile drama only seems like a matter of life and death, but in Antonio Campos' first feature, those are pretty much the stakes as a private school gets shaken up by the death of two teens, caught on camera by the shy kid (Emory Cohen) who didn't want to do A/V Club in the first place. Despite some tenuous connections between the act of filming violence and the act of being violent, Campos manages to let shots linger long enough to evoke the pointed but patience-testing antics of Gus van Sant and Michael Haneke, and when it's not being downright creepy, Afterschool is quietly damning of an administration willing to point all the wrong fingers and play up all the wrong angles before brushing the whole matter beneath the rug.
And a bit more from Mr. Goss on Ong Bak 2 (which Pete also covered right here):
If someone stuck Tony Jaa in a Thai equivalent of Apocalypto while letting Zack Snyder run loose with the slo-mo controls, it might turn out to be something like this in-name-only sequel that puts off any truly righteous ass-kickery until the hour mark, in order to make room for relentless flashbacks and an indulgent dance sequence, and then dares to close with an honest-to-goodness "clap for Tinkerbell" moment. We knew Jaa could bust heads; now he's just busting our balls.
Excuse me for a moment while I smash the Goss for absconding with my "ass-kickery" phrase. While you wait, here's the aforementioned Peter Martin with some thoughts on Sorry, Thanks and Monsters from the Id, respectively:
1. Wiley Wiggins turns in a sly, dry, funny performance as a political office worker who's lost his passion and drive -- if he ever had any to begin with. He's one part of a not-quite-romantic triangle that mostly centers on Kenya Miles as she recovers from a long-term relationship and tries to figure out her next steps should be. Ia Hernandez completes the picture as the most content, yet least aware of what's really going on around her. Dia Sokol's directorial debut presents a slice of bumpy young adult life that's a San Francisco treat.
2. David Gargani's doc posits that if more movies today had good scientists as role models, like it was back in the 50s, more kids might grow up to become scientists and save the world. (Please note that the movie was completed before Nicolas Cage damaged the reputation of all MIT professors with his role in Knowing.) As a persuasive argument, the doc doesn't quite hold together -- for one thing, it ignores the core problem that many kids aren't getting a good, basic education to begin with. The real kick for me came from seeing clips from classic 50s science fiction movies on the big screen at the Alamo Drafthouse: anytime is the right time to see highlights from Forbidden Planet, Them!, When Worlds Collide, and more.
Ms. Jette Kernion has a few mini-reviews of her own to share:
St. Nick is the most beautifully shot movie I saw at SXSW this year. I had to slow down and give it my full attention, and it was well worth the effort. The feature, directed by David Lowery, is about two children who run away to an abandoned house, and it has very little dialogue. If you get the chance to see this, especially in a theater, don't miss it.
The Least of These is a documentary about the Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, where immigrant families are detained while they seek asylum or await judgment on immigration cases. The families' stories are often sad, but I like the way the movie shows how persistent activism actions can lead to positive change. You can watch this film online now, for free, on SnagFilms.
Along Came Kinky: Texas Jewboy for Governor was a popular choice for locals who weren't attending the whole film fest, but couldn't resist a political documentary set primarily in their hometown. The film focuses on musician-turned-politician Kinky Friedman's 2006 Texas gubernatorial campaign, and includes hilarious footage of all the candidates. You can see almost the exact moment at which Friedman's campaign turns sour and starts to lose momentum. Friedman was at the screening and held a spirited Q&A along with director David Hartstein, although he didn't quite confirm whether he would run for governor again in 2010.
Jess Weixler and Justin Rice in Alexander the Last
Last but not least we look to good ol' Erik Davis, who has this to say about the latest from Joe Swanberg, which is called Alexander the Last:
Joe Swanberg's latest premiered at the festival this year in conjunction with a new IFC platform that pushed the flick onto VOD on the same day it screened for festival-goers -- and it was fitting, too, since the tighter-than-previous Swanberg films follows two sisters (played by the equally oustanding Jess Weixler and Amy Seimetz) who fall for the same Abercrombie & Fitch-esque actor ... at the same time. Alex (Weixler) is married to traveling musician Eliott (Justin Rice) and in the midst of rehearsing an intimate play with Jamie (Barlow Jacobs), who she kinda has a thing for. Unfortunately for Alex, though, her newly-single sister (Seimetz) is on the prowl and guess whose secret crush she settles down with?
Swanberg has an unbelievable eye for writing female characters, then finding the right actresses to play them. Both Weixler and Seimetz completely outshine the somewhat mopey male performers, and keep the film chugging along at a quick, snappy organic pace. It also helps that Swanberg's direction and cinematography has reached a new level of beauty and simplicity, leaving this audience member hopeful that the filmmaker chooses to remain behind the camera -- instead of in front of it -- and focus more of his efforts there moving forward.
For even MORE in the department of smart people discussing small films, I point one of my browser tabs to IndieWire, and offer the following passages from iW film critic Eric Kohn:
On Pontypool: "Or, rather, we are the zombies: The story centers on a moody but talented radio DJ whose quiet day on the air suddenly becomes shockingly distinct when reports begin coming in about people in the area going crazy, moving in crowds with a furious mob mentality and leaving death in their wake. A minimalist horror movie, "Pontypool" relies more on the vague suggestions of a mass, unexplainable catastrophe just beyond our realm of awareness - not unlike M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs," but much, much better." -- (full review here)
On "It was great, but I was ready to come home": It's hard to say if Swanberg (wife of Joe) actually figured out how to tap into the dimensionality of her character's troubles or if she just got lucky with the succession of scenes that wound up in the final product. Either way, she owes a lot to her collaborators, particularly cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke and editor David Lowery (whose SXSW feature "St. Nick" also displays an extraordinary control of cinematic devices). The serene tropical backdrop provides these two believable characters with a remarkably potent environment for letting their personalities slowly unfurl. If it offers some wisdom about the proper mental protocol for breakups-and I think it does-that's just the luck of the draw. Nevertheless, the movie seems better because of it. -- (full review here)
On Severe Clear: Although he's certainly not a candidate for the American Society of Cinematographers, Scotti displays a fierce commitment to his photographic lens. When he's not running for cover, he puts a blatant effort into composing lucid shots, and occasionally hits on strikingly lyrical images. In one memorable scene, he and his colleagues watch bombs light up the night sky as they fall on Baghdad for the first time since the Gulf War. -- (full review here) (AND check out the rest of IndieWire's SXSW reviews right here)
And just so we know that things are wrapped up all neat and tight, here's a listing of all our SXSW 2009 articles. Maybe next year you'll head down to Austin and see some of the movies WITH us.
Best Worst Movie
Drag Me to Hell
For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism
The Haunting in Connecticut
I Love You, Man
New World Order
Observe and Report
The Slammin' Salmon
The Way We Get By
Women in Trouble
Preview: We Want to See it All
Live from SXSW: Hey, Nice Paneling!
Live from SXSW: Bruno Footage is 20 Minutes of Comedic Bliss
Asian Cinema Scene at SXSW: Ong Bak 2 & Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo
Live from SXSW: Snippets of Trimpin
Exclusive: New Images from The Hurt Locker
Live from SXSW: The Undeniable Coolness of Jeffrey Tambor
Live from SXSW: Tobe Hooper's First Film
The Cinematical Roundtable: Live from SXSW with Scott Weinberg and Drew McWeeny
The Cinematical Roundtable: Live from SXSW with James Rocchi
SXSW Exclusive: The Dungeon Masters Poster
SXSW in 60 Seconds
Hmm, what else? Well of course we have to thank everyone at SXSW for treating the Cinematical staff (and ALL us hard-workin' internet folks) so damn well. From new fest chief Janet Pierson down to 16-year-old festival volunteer Emily Hagins, everyone was all smiles, sauce and cinema. (And I mean barbecue sauce, not alcohol. OK, maybe both.) Special thanks to Jarod Neece, Charlie Sotelo, Rebecca Fefernan, Elizabeth Drezco, Tim League and his awesome Alamo Drafthouse team, everyone at BSide.com, and basically ANYONE who's ever been to Austin, Texas in the last three years. If I listed all the personal friends that Eric, Jette, Peter, Will, Kevin, Eugene and I were grateful to, this damn article would just never end. You guys know who you are.