For SXSW this year, I was going to be prepared. I was going to have my day of movies meticulously planned out - down to the minute, to maximize my movie potential every day. And yet, the more I studied the schedule, the more that perfect balance eluded me. This year is packed. I can't recall if SXSW has ever had this many movies with this much variety of theme and story. Last year's SXSW felt a bit geared towards Texas-shot moies, but this year I can't find any common thread of any kind (that is, unless you're interested in time travel movies - this year has three, one of which I'm reviewing here). It makes it difficult to prioritize.
Day one, though, I had fairly planned out. I was going to see Jon Favreau's new film, CHEF, and then see THE INFINITE MAN. Just two movies, to start - no midnighters, as I'm getting, to be blunt, a bit old for that late-night shit. And then I sat in on a panel - the Insiders Film Guide to SXSW. And that was when I decided to throw out the schedule and take a chance.
SXSW, you see, is a bit like structured chaos. Take two of those rolypoly bugs, put them in a jar and shake it, and see if they fight, except the bugs are thousands of film, interactive, and music fans, and the jar is Austin. And I didn't much feel like trying to nagivate my way through the chaos, but instead just see what happens. So I skipped CHEF. I figured that it's going to be widely released soon anyway, and no matter what, I'll eventually see it. Due to the amount of AICN staff we have here, one of us is going to review it anyway, so I'm sure if you keep reading the site a review will come up soon that you can read. For me, though, I wanted to see where the wind took me.
It wound up taking me to the Alamo Ritz on 6th Street, as I stood in line to see THE DESERT. I wanted to see something without any pre-conceived notions of what it might be, and THE DESERT fit the bill, especially based on its synopsis. Is it post-apocalyptic, a zombie movie, a movie about relationships... I didn't know, because of how vague the write-up was. And I'm glad I didn't. THE DESERT is all of those things, but what writer and director Christoph Biehl has done, if you want to sum it all up in a sentence, is make what is probably the first Jean-Paul Sartre zombie movie. If hell is truly other people, THE DESERT assures us that even in a world stripped and torn down to the roots, we can never escape.
The world has ended. Outside the walls of a Buenos Aires shanty house, we see very little, but it is obvious that something monumentally bad has happened. We come to the home of Ana (Victoria Almeida), Jonathan (William Prociuk), and Axel (Lautaro Delgado) - three people who go through the motions of survival. Outside the walls, we must assume, the zombie apocalypse has happened - we never see much of Buenos Aires, but we can hear the moans, and in our brief glimpses we can see a world that has "moved on" in the parlance of Stephen King's THE GUNSLINGER. The opening scene establishes a world full of undead, as Jonathan and Axel in one of their excursions to the outside to get supplies shoot and kill a young zombie.
Jonathan and Ana are a couple in the house, while Axel is alone. Their are flies everywhere, seeking out the decay, and Axel tattoos on himself constantly, fly after fly onto his skin. When there is no more room on his body, Axel says, he will leave. The three of them warily circle each other - Ana was once with Axel until an affair with Jonathan ended that relationship, and while she is with Jonathan now there is no passion in it for her. "He's an engineer and he fucks like an engineer," Ana says on a confessional video that she has set up for the three of them to share their innermost thoughts on camera, with the proviso that the others do not watch them. Axel, of course, has seen her videotapes, and obsesses over them, and over Ana.
During a game of truth or dare, Jonathan dares Axel to look into the eyes of a zombie. Axel accepts, and soon the threesome gains a fourth, a young zombie that Ana names Pythagoras (Lucas Lagre). Ana obsesses over names, writing new ones that she comes across on the wall, and she likes the sound of Pythagoras enough to give it that name. Boredom, loneliness, and desperation set in - something must change for these three people, because true despair is coming. All the while, Axel adds another fly tattoo to his body, and they are spreading, like the malaise that has spread over them all. Why survive if life is not worth living? Why live without love? For these three, these are questions they desperately need answers to.
THE DESERT is Christoph Biehl's first feature narrative film, and in it he explores these relationships with a carefully measured and restrained eye. We are not allowed the release of the larger world - we never stray but only for tiny moments outside the house - and THE DESERT becomes fiercely intimate. There is no escape (or no exit, if you will) from these people's lives. It's interesting that Biehl sets his story where he does - THE DESERT is barely a zombie movie, technically, as we only see one for any real length of time, but Biehl isn't interested in the dead so much as the living. He uses the motif to explore the inner workings of human relationships, of love, obsession, and finally, the depths of human nature.
While THE DESERT is almost unbearably bleak, the performances are all terrific, especially Almeida as Ana. You watch as her optimism and hope die in her eyes throughout the length of the film, and it is a heartbreaking performance. Delgado's Axel is trying desperately to find something to hold onto in this devastated world, but it escapes his grasp, while Prociuk's Jonathan is something of the patriarch, trying to hold this dysfunctional family together any way he can. I had no expectations for THE DESERT going in, but I was quietly blown away by the talent on display and the resonant themes of the movie. While it's not the kind of film that anyone would care to repeat any time soon, THE DESERT is strikingly original in the zombie genre and uses those tropes to tell a story of despair and hopelessness. Brutal at times, THE DESERT isn't casual entertainment, but it is ultimately rewarding.
Dan Beers, the director of PREMATURE, was an associate producer of Wes Anderson's THE LIFE AQUATIC, but his feature directorial debut is nothing like that film. Instead, PREMATURE is what Hollywood people would call "high-concept" and I'm sure the pitch went something along the lines of "It's GROUNDHOG DAY meets AMERICAN PIE!" And while PREMATURE is pretty much exactly that, what saves the movie is that PREMATURE is incredibly funny, with witty dialogue and winning, heartfelt performances. I laughed a lot at PREMATURE, and while the movie is predictable, it's predictable in comfortable ways. It's also profane, disgusting, and incredibly amusing.
What's essential in making a teen sex comedy like PREMATURE work is that the degradation and humiliation that hits our hero isn't unduly tragic. Rob's (John Karna) day starts out like any other - dreaming of having sex with a three-boobed girl, only to wake up with wet underwear and a disapproving mom. It's a big day for Rob, because he's having an interview with a college representative from Georgetown (Alan Tudyk) and if his life is going to happen he has to get into Georgetown. It's not exactly the life that Rob has chosen for himself, but he wants to make his dad and mom happy. He's also still a virgin, and so like any 17-year-old virgin he thinks of sex constantly. His virginity is more of a burden that he wants to shed than an experience to treasure at this point. His best friend (Craig Roberts) has had sex already, and relishes telling Rob about it at every waking moment.
All Rob wants to do is spend time with his other friend Gabrielle (Katie Findlay) and watch the spelling bee together, but Rob's dick, to be frank, is getting him into trouble, and when he winds up tutoring the class slut everyone calls "Afterschool Special" (Carlson Young) - because there have been a thousand of those shows about girls like her - Rob winds up making out with her and having an orgasm. Which, inexplicably, puts him back where he started, in bed, wet underwear, disapproving mom. Turns out everytime Rob comes, his day starts all over again, and each humiliation repeats itself, over and over.
PREMATURE is as crude and juvenile as the plot suggests, but it's still charming as hell and hilarious, with terrific performances across the board. The dialogue is vulgar and at times in astoundingly bad taste, but PREMATURE gets away with it because it has a huge heart, and that makes all the difference. The script by Dan Beers and Mathew Herawitz is crude but smart, and yeah, while it's very reminiscent of GROUNDHOG DAY, there is enough variety in the plot to keep it interesting and fresh.
I can imagine a movie like PREMATURE to be wildly successful once it gets released. It's an easy sell, and it's consistently funny, and it's got a warm heart at its center. Even when the movie gets a bit too ridiculous (unlike GROUNDHOG DAY, PREMATURE tries to explain the reason behind all the time loops and it gets bogged down in the details) it has a steady need to entertain. Vulgar without being rude, and witty without being full of itself, PREMATURE is entertaining and never not funny, and raunchy in all the right ways. Dan Beers has crafted a pretty comical, honest, and endearing little sex comedy, and you should seek it out when it gets released.
Okay - DAY 2, and won't you be my NEIGHBOR?