Hey folks, Harry here with the latest festival round up by GhostBoy - who we last saw checking in from Berlin's Film Fest. Sounds like he enjoyed the hell out of a great SXSW. I need to write up my thoughts on CHUMSCRUBBER, THE THING ABOUT MY PARENTS, HOOLIGANS and HUSTLE & FLOW - 4 films I saw during and around the festival that I loved. But enough of me, on to Ghostboy...
Ghostboy here. I just returned from Austin a few hours ago. SXSW is over.
I had intended to file reports throughout the festival, but I just...well, I just ran out of time, I guess, although I see other spies didn't have the same problem. Maybe I'm just lazy. In any case, here are some brief looks at all the films I saw (minus one that I don't feel like writing about, on account of the whole 'if you don't have anything nice to say" thing). Hope you enjoy...
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON (directed by Jeff Feurezeig)
This is the best film I saw at the festival - or, at least, the best documentary. Director Jeff Feurezeig tells the story of cult songwriter/artist Daniel Johnston, whose promising early years gave way to a severe dive into manic depression, from which he's only now just beginning to emerge. Johnston is a sweet man, a creative genius obsessed with eyeballs, frogs, Captain America, Casper the Ghost and Jesus - all of which comes through in his highly unique music and instantly recognizable artwork - and so childlike that watching his seemingly inevitable breakdown (can any great musician ever not have one?) is almost unbearable. In the most heartbreaking sequence, his father, a pilot, recounts the time he was flying Daniel home from the hospital, and his son pulled the keys from the plane's ignition and threw them out the window, almost completely unaware of what he was doing. They both survived the crash, but the memory is so painful that the senior Johnston can't tell the story without breaking down in tears.
But Daniel Johnston rebounds, and indeed, he was there to speak about the film after the screening. The moment when he walked out, to resounding applause from the audience, was a really beautiful thing. As was the film itself.
FOUR EYED MONSTERS (directed by Arin Crumley and Susan Buice)
I'm pretty sure this is my favorite of all the narrative films I saw. It's a romantic drama about two awkward kids in New York and their quirky (god, I hate that word) relationship, but that doesn't really describe it. Imagine a Bright Eyes song adapted into a screenplay and directed by Darren Aronofsky, and you might have an idea of what this Four Eyed Monsters is like. It jumps from fictional narrative to documentary to animation with an incredibly emotional insistence - the characters are brash and immature and even a little annoying sometimes, but their fumbling romance rang so true that the film almost moved me to tears. The ending, which shatters the fourth wall of the cinema, is exhilarating. It's not a perfect film, it's rough around the edges, but damn if I didn't love it.
LA SIERRA (directed by Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez)
After the screening of The Devil And Daniel Johnston, the director made a plea for documentary filmmakers to shoot their films on real film. That's a fine sentiment, and film is great, but another documentary playing at the festival, La Sierra, could never have been accomplished without tiny digital cameras - and that would have been a shame, because it is an astonishing piece of work. Taking place in the titular mountain village in the mountains of Columbia, the film provides an incredibly intimate look at a war being waged between guerillas and the local paramilitary unit - which is almost entirely made up of and run by teenagers. The filmmakers had unprecedented access to the lives of these kids, who seem comfortable with the cameras and extremely loquacious - both when they're hanging out and when they're actually engaged in crossfire with the opposing forces. Their awareness of their predicament and the fact that their lives will most likely be very short is highly tragic; so to is their family situations, as all the boys in town have fathered multiple children with girls who aren't much more than children themselves. This film is the most harrowing documentary I saw at the festival, and its power is due entirely to the fact that the filmmakers had such a close, fluid relationship with their subjects.
THE PUFFY CHAIR (directed by Jay Duplass)
This film has the sort of backstory that seems too charmed to be true; the Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, decided about this time last year they wanted to make a film to submit to the next SXSW. They came up with this story about a guy named Josh (to be played by Mark) who, with his brother and girlfriend, take a road trip to pick up a big red arm chair Josh bought for his father on eBay. They made it over the summer, and before it could be accepted by SXSW, it got into Sundance. And you know, it deserves it - it's a wonderful little film, funny and clever, with a caustic edge that leads up to a surprisingly meaningful ending. It's obviously a very low budget film (and I mean very), but it's also obvious that the Duplass brothers have talent, and know precisely how to make a great film with minimal means (i.e. themselves, their friends and a DVX-100 dv camera), and how to perfectly exploit those minimal means. This is the kind of indie films that Sundance was created to showcase. Now that I think about it, this probably ties with Four Eyed Monsters for my favorite narrative feature.
THE ROOST (directed by Ti West)
My first reaction to this horror film was that it was brilliant. Perhaps it was because I saw it at the Alamo Drafthouse at midnight with a few drinks to accompany it and a packed house of appreciative fans to provide a laugh/scream track, but even if it's not brilliant, it's still the best zombie bat movie I've ever seen. The film I'd compare it to most immediately is Cabin Fever - although this is a bit more straightforward, and sufficiently scarier, it has that same morbid sense of humor. Director Ti West shot the film on a stock so grainy you can practically count the specks of emulsion on the film, and this adds a wonderfully old fashioned, low budget feel to the picture. It takes a while to get going, but once it does, it's consistently delightful -or, as one of my friends said, groin-grabbingly good.
PALINDROMES (directed by Todd Solondz)
There will be plenty to read about this film as it edges towards its release date next month, so I'll keep this short. I think it's Solondz's best film by far - it's as shocking as anything he's ever done, but also more emotionally centered and quite subjective - it's quite moving, and I have a feeling it's probably a very personal story for Solondz. The use of different actresses for the main character is a stroke of genius.
KISSING ON THE MOUTH (directed by Joe Swanberg)
In the Q&A after this picture, the filmmakers spoke about how their intent was to reclaim sexual imagery from pornography. That's an important and admirable motive, and I'd say they've succeeded; Kissing On The Mouth features extensive nudity, ejaculation, pubic hair trimming, and lots of graphic sex (minus any actual shots of penetration), but this extremely explicit content is used, not to titillate, but to contextualize the relationships of the four central characters and their attitudes towards each other (and, in a broader sense, of young people in general - much of the film feature voice over interviews with anonymous subjects about the same concerns the characters discuss/deal with). Those characters are played by the filmmakers, who also served as the crew. Incidentally, the best scenes in Kissing On The Mouth occur when Swanberg, who gets the main directing credit, isn't on screen - not because he's a poor actor (the whole cast is excellent, especially Kate Winterich as Ellen) but because he has a highly evocative style of shooting, focusing on unexpected things; a case in point would be the frequent, lingering shots of hands and feet, or the one sex scene that focuses almost entirely on the expressions of the girl, the shoulder of her lover obstructing her face intermittently. Actually, it's the one moment in the film that is erotic. This film is everything that Larry Clark's films aren't: explicit, but honest and nonexploitative. I suppose we'll see how Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs compares later this year, but for now I'm championing this film for its treatment of sexuality.
DROP DEAD SEXY (directed by Michael Phillip)
Um...I'm going to plead the fifth here.
CAVITE (directed by Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon)
The synopsis for this film sounds oddly similar to both Cellular and Phone Booth: a young man gets a call on a cell phone and is told to stay on the line and follow the nefarious directions he receives, with his family's life hanging in the balance. Where this film differs from those more forgettable Hollywood thrillers is in it's setting: the film takes place in the Philippines, and the filmmakers use their story as an excuse to explore this culture in vivid, fascinating detail. In addition, they take the premise to places, narratively that no Hollywood film would every dare go. The climax of Cavite is upsetting and honest, and completely elevates the film from the status of a traditional nail biter.
YOU'RE GONNA MISS ME (directed by Keven McAlester)
Following in the footsteps of The Devil And Daniel Johnston, here's another documentary about a brilliant, tortured musician from the Austin area. The subject this time is Roky Erickson, the lead singer of 60s band The 13th Floor Elevators, who helped usher in the psychedelic era of rock and roll before rampant drug use and subsequent institutionalization and shock treatment almost killed him. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and relegated to the care of his mother, who meant well but did nothing to facilitate her son's recovery. Via archival footage, the film follows Erickson from his early days with his band to the custody case that ended with him being removed from his mother's care and delivered to his younger brother. And then it ends, and if there's anything that keeps this moving film from being really good, it's that it doesn't feel quite over when the credits start to roll.
BE HERE TO LOVE ME (directed by Margaret Brown)
Here's another documentary about - you guessed it - a brilliant, tragic musician whose incredible talent shone throughout the years of alcoholism, drug abuse and (again) shock treatment that finally did beat him down and kill him in the nineties. Townes Van Zandt may not be a familiar name to many people, but he's regarded as one of the best American singer-songwriters ever, and you've probably heard some of the songs he wrote for folks like Willie Nelson or Emmylou Harris. He also wrote a lot of songs for himself, and his own music is beautiful stuff. Judging by all the archival footage, he was a wonderful person - a warm, funny, big-hearted man. He's so endearing that it's difficult to believe he was as troubled as he was; director Margaret Brown mentioned that early cuts of the film were too depressing to endure, and I'm curious as to what she's cut out. If you have the chance to see this film, I'd suggest familiarizing yourself with Van Zandt's music beforehand - there's a bit of an assumption throughout that the audience is familiar with his career, the progression of which I found a bit unclear. Still, this is one is great documentary - until I saw the Daniel Johnston film, it was the best I'd seen at the festival.
THE FEARLESS FREAKS (directed by Bradley Beasley)
How about a change of pace? Here's a documentary about a bunch of at least somewhat well adjusted musicians - The Flaming Lips. It's a fun, joyful film, chronicling the history of the band from 1983 to the release of of its last record. It's almost too light hearted to be entirely memorable, but there is one remarkable scene where Steve Drozd explains with great lucidity the history of his heroin addiction and the feeling the drug gives him - all while cooking some smack, preparing the needle and shooting up - that achieves a level of intimacy and honesty that is otherwise lacking (perhaps inherently) from a movie about a band as (brilliantly) superficial as the Lips.
OCCUPATION: DREAMLAND (directed by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds)
This documentary was shot during the occupation of Falljua by the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army in early 2004, before the Marines took over and all hell broke loose. There are scenes of insurgent attacks and covert operations, but the film is mostly concerned with the the soldiers, and their thoughts and feelings about what they are doing. It's a strong, enlightening film, but it suffers not in comparison but in proximity to the very similar Gunnar Palace, which was finished first and is currently in release. Still, it's valuable glimpse at a situation on the brink of complete upheaval, and I hope it receives some form of distribution in the future.
REEL PARADISE (directed by Steve James)
Any independent filmmaker should be familiar with the work of John Pierson, who in the 80s and 90s helped bring many filmmakers - Richard Linklater, Michael Moore, Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, etc. - into prominence. He also ran a great show on IFC called Split Screen, and when that ended, he decided he needed cleanse himself, to reginite his passion for cinema - and so he moved, along with his wife and two kids, to a remote island in Fiji and ran a free movie theater for a year. This film, directed by Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame, another film Peirson discovered and championed), takes place during the last month of their 'vacation.' Rife with familial drama, it frequently seems like a cinematically oriented version of the Osbournes, and I think a stronger picture could have been made had the entire year been documented. But there's no denying the joy in seeing an entire theater full of Fiji natives erupt with laughter while watching Steamboat Bill, Jr.; it's a contagious, wonderful thing.
MOTT MUSIC (directed by Jarred Alterman)
This short documentary explores a piano factory in the Bronx. Only twenty minutes long, it nonetheless offers a passionate defense of music as vibrant, living thing, and ends with a remarkable segue into magical realism that proves its point in an unexpected and very effective manner.
KUNG FU HUSTLE (directed by Stephen Chow)
The first two third of this movie are pure, unadulterated joy; it's such a giddy rush that it peaks rather early, and ends rather anticlimactically, and for that reason I don't think it's as good, overall, as Chow's Shaolin Soccer. But those first two thirds - seriously, you have no idea how much fun this is.
OLD BOY (directed by Chan Wook Park)
I actually saw this months ago on DVD, but since it played at the festival, I'll quickly throw in my two cents. I usually love cult favorites as much as the next film geek, but I have to go against the grain in this case. The first act of this film is brilliant, as darkly exhilarating as Kung Fu Hustle is comically. The ant on the subway, the fight scene/dolly shot - I was loving it. Then, the long expository flashback occurred, the wheels of the plot started groaning, and readers, I must admit, I grew bored, disinterested, and began to check my watch. I think Park is a talented visualist, but the script goes from good to mediocre to terrible. At least in my opinion - and I'm very much aware that I'm in the minority here. When it comes to the brutality or the 'shocking' twist at the end, I'll take a Miike film over this any day. Choi Min-Sik gives a great performance, though.
STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY'S BIRTHDAY PARTY (directed by Robert Brinkmann)
This docu-drama is sort of like My Dinner With Andre, except there's only one person talking throughout the whole thing. It consists of a series of personal stories told by character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, first to the camera, later to the guests at his birthday party. The stories are about his life, his career, acting in general, dolphins, drugs, etc. Tobolowsky is a wonderful actor, and his talent extends to his prodigious skills as a storyteller. The film is funny and endearing, if ever so slightly portentous from time to time, and will probably be a significant push to Tobolowsky's already prosperous (if under-the-radar) career.
DEAD BIRDS (directed by Alex Turner)
The friend I saw this with mentioned that it was basically an unofficial entry in the Amittyville Horror series - sort of a prequel, if you will, set in the Civil War. To wit: a group of soldiers-turned-bank-robbers (Henry Thomas and Patrick Fugit among them) hole up in a deserted house over night where very bad things occurred a long time ago. You can probably figure out what happens, more or less. This has a lot of gore, great sound design, really beautiful cinematography, and some scenes that are as frightening as they are completely predictable. This is the sort of film that is scary as hell while you watch it and instantly forgettable once it's over. It also reminded me a lot of Dog Soldiers, except that I hated that movie, wheras this one is decent.
THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE (directed by Rebecca Miller)
I felt a little guilty for seeing this film, as it's being released in a week or two, but oh well. It's good, very nearly great, much like Miller's last film, Personal Velocity. Daniel Day Lewis is brilliant, of course, and the film almost achieves something truly special - but I have trouble with the ending. There are times when tragedy doesn't have to be tragic, when it can be a beautiful and poetic thing, and I feel like Miller missed the chance for something special with the conclusion.
THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS (directed by Asia Argento)
Adapted from J.T. LeRoy's novel of the same name, this is a stridently unpleasant film about a mother and son's symbiotic, destructive relationship. Argento shows promise, and the film is worth seeing for what she does right (including her performance as the mother, and the one she drew from the kids that play her son), but her approach isn't graceful enough to make the grim subject matter as piercing as it could be; eventually, one just grows numb to all the unrelenting misery on display. And there are two many notable actors in small rolls in the film (the most grevious instance is Winona Ryder's appearance as a guidance counselor) - their draw to this difficult material is admirable, but it gets distracting after a certain point. There are elements, though, that make the film worth seeing, including some stop motion fantasy sequences and a truly upsetting but beautifull staged scene involving Argento and (in a rare appearance sans makeup and shock-rock persona) Marilyn Manson.
SARAH SILVERMAN: JESUS IS MAGIC (directed by Liam Lynch)
This was the last flick I saw at the festival, last night at the Drafthouse, at midnight, and it was the perfect night cap to a great week of filmgoing. I'm generally not that into stand-up films, but this left my sides aching. I'll recount one line, and leave it at that: "When God gives you AIDS, make lemonaids!"
And that's it.
A lot of these films are really wonderful; and a lot of them won't be coming to a theater near you any time soon. If any of them sound interesting to you, I urge you to check out the films' websites (do a Google search or visit www.sxsw.com to find the links), get in touch with the filmmakers, find out where they'll be playing next. There's some truly great art out there, and it deserves to be sought out and seen.
I'm totally exhausted (and completely invigorated at the same time - movies have a tendency to do that to me). Until next time...