March 20, 2006

Austin Dispatch. 3.

After a strange and exhausting odyssey (long story), I'm finally back in Berlin and I'll have a quick SXSW Film Festival wrap-up of my own soon, but in the meantime, Jonathan Marlow gives us what we really want in a recap: the bottom line on a wide range of films, succinct and perceptive as ever.

SXSW 06 Nothing succeeds like success, they say, and success couldn't be more deserved for Matt Dentler and company. The festival displayed unprecedented growth in both audience size and film quality at the twentieth SXSW (although the film festival, which appeared later, celebrated lucky number thirteen). While the event technically "ended" on Tuesday with the presentation of awards and a closing night party, the screenings continued through Saturday with several premieres surfacing over the remainder of the week (including a sneak of A Scanner Darkly, adapted from the novel-of-the-same-name by Philip K. Dick).

With the festival over, this recap of only a few of the many movies that were presented throughout Austin over the previous ten days serves as a "see this, or don't, whenever and wherever these films are presented at a screen near you." Seven documentaries, seven narrative films (plus two I failed to see) and seven shorts, listed appropriately by section in alphabetical order.


Al Franken: God Spoke Al Franken: God Spoke
If you like Al Franken, you'll love this movie. While I have no attraction for canned comments of this sort, the documentary entirely redeems such a clichéd phrase since it frankly portrays Franken as quick-witted and charming, taking any mild feelings you might have for the man to an entirely new level of appreciation (unless you're a humorless conservative, not unlike several of the folks he belittles in the film). See also the related Chris Hegedus/Nick Doob piece for the First Amendment Project.

Danielson: A Family Movie
The music of Daniel Smith and "Familie" is an acquired taste, perhaps a bit bitter at first but grows more appealing with time, not unlike this captivating film which dutifully documents the Danielsonship's uncharacteristic pathway to success. In what music cocoon did I find myself hiding to only discover Sufjan Stevens through this documentary?

Imagine medieval fantasy role-playing as a full-contact sport. On paper, it might not seem particularly interesting but Darkon is perhaps the most exhilarating fun that you'll have at a non-fiction film this year. It could even make LARP a household word and propel Skip Lipman into his destiny as an action hero in Hollywood's inevitable adaptation of Atari Adventure.

In a series of staged readings, now a book and a major motion picture, Annabelle Gurwitch displays a lovely set of outfits, a wonderful sense of humor and a compelling frown-upside-down story where she exorcises her traumatic experience of getting fired (by Woody Allen, no less) into an opportunity for other folks (Fred Willard, Illeana Douglas and Andy Dick among them) to tell their own hilarious tales of humiliation.

Maxed Out Maxed Out
The pyramid which allows massive personal credit card debt to propel the economy forward while the protections for individual consumers are eroded (and the rights of credit issuers are expanded) should concern everyone in this country. The whole scheme could come crashing down around us and most of the folks in this country will likely remain in denial to the very end. Provided some bold distributor snaps this picture up, the film could become a call-to-arms. Admittedly, seeing this documentary the same week that the US debt ceiling was raised added yet another layer of depression to an already disturbing film.

Shadow Company
Whenever mention is made of "private contractors" dying in Iraq, the press is really speaking of non-governmental military personnel - mercenaries, for lack of a better word. Shadow Company tells the fascinating history of these hired guns and the ever-increasing use in armed conflicts around the world.

The Treasures of Long Gone John
It's a wonder that this documentary didn't already exist. Thankfully, Gregg Gibbs has remedied the problem, filming the ambitious anti-mogul of Sympathy for the Record Industry, Long Gone John, and chronicling the label's hundreds of record releases and the thousands of objects, paintings and otherwise (by the likes of Todd Schorr, Mark Ryden and Camille Rose Garcia), that fill his home. Would fit nicely in a double-feature with the similarly eccentric Mau Mau Sex Sex...

Narrative Features

Eric Byler's sophomore effort occupies a similar realm to his debut, Charlotte Sometimes. Unlike most independent dramas, Byler allows the actors the space to fully occupy their roles, creating a world where the characters seem to exist before the film begins and continues long after the film ends. As such, his films are more mature than nearly anyone else currently working in this country. If his films were photographed by Christopher Doyle and were subtitled, the cineastes would be all over them. For now, it is our little secret. But not for long.

The Cassidy Kids
As much as I enjoyed Bryan Poyser's script (reworked from pre-existing material) for this engaging film, I only wish that it had landed in the hands of a more adept director. It fails in far too many places to shake the parameters of its budget or the inexperience of its crew. The performances of Kadeem Hardison and Tiger Darrow are remarkable, however. Given that the film occupies three realms - a fictional television program, the "real life" that the program was based on and the present day reunion of the real people upon which the television program was based - it seems a natural for this movie to be made into a television show. Sometimes the most ridiculous ideas are the ones that truly work.

Don't Come Knocking Don't Come Knocking
While it falls miles away from his greatest work, Wenders's latest is considerably better than his last effort, Land of Plenty. In fact, I could even claim to like it. Parts of it. The film's roots began in Butte, Montana, many years ago and the city is certainly the star around which the tale turns. An implausible series of events lead to a few forceful scenes, one in particular between husband-and-wife team Sam Shepard, who also co-wrote the script, and Jessica Lange.

Eve & the Fire Horse
I have a bias against coming-of-age films. I know this about myself and, therein, anything that I say about this film is colored through my own considerable dislikes. I've talked to plenty of folks that adore this film. I abhor it.

Heavens Fall
Anyone familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird knows the basic story of the "Scottsboro Boys" (greatly simplified to artistic effect in the Harper Lee novel). Director Terry Green takes the event and crafts an historical drama that never feels much more than conventional in its execution. Timothy Hutton, as always, is exceptional as "big city" lawyer Samuel Leibowitz; the actor brought along a number of Nero Wolfe cast-mates to round out the proceedings. David Strathairn, in two films at the festival, makes much of a small part. A film, such as this, that fails to realize its potential is more instructive than a film that is merely good-but-not-great.

The Last Romantic
This latest in a long line of brother directors (I can count the sister directors on one hand, unfortunately); the Nees (who wrote, directed, one stars) make a rather good comedic phantasmagoria about an inept would-be poet and the series of oddballs that he encounters in New York, including a series of lovely women. Is every lady in Manhattan a model? Over the years, I've seen a number of films not unlike this at SXSW. Ideally, this one will have a life at many other festivals ahead.

The director failed to give me a promised disc of his film. As gathered from the trailer, the titular object is passed-along from one character to another and the usual hijinks result. Filmed ages ago in Austin, the movie evidently features an exceptional cameo by legendary area musician Seth Whitney.

A Prairie Home Companion
I didn't see it. Why am I mentioning yet another film that I didn't even watch? Because I definitely want to see it, thanks to my late grandmother's passion for Garrison Keillor (we attended a live broadcast together about a decade ago) and my fondness for overlapping dialogue. Besides, this is a chance to plug the fact that it will be the closing film at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

V for Vendetta
This might well be the most subversive film to come out of Hollywood in quite some time. Natalie Portman breathes life into an otherwise hollow character, proving (despite her turn as that Amidala character) that she is actually skilled, and Hugo Weaving brings compassion to a role that never has a face (but a rather fixed-expressive mask). It is difficult to isolate the story into its humble beginnings as a parallel to Thatcher's England since the script clearly evokes comparisons with contemporary issues - whether it's the situation in Iraq, the current state of politics in the US and the UK or even hinting at the personal lives of the filmmakers themselves. It isn't really possible to watch a film of this sort and put these issues out of your mind. Indeed, you wouldn't want to. As a whole, the experience is richer with all of these lingering details and, without a doubt, more thought-provoking than all of the Matrix films put together.

Short Films

Unfortunately, I didn't see any of the animated of experimental programs, thus missing new works by David Russo, Chel White, Deco Dawson, Emily Hubley or Reynold Reynolds. In fact, many of these films were either caught at screenings at other festivals or the filmmakers were kind enough to send me a copy directly. In gratitude for their efforts, a few words about these magnificent seven (or rather, at least three are worthy of such praise, but you'll have to read on to discern which is which).

A Bee and a Cigarette A Bee and a Cigarette
Bob Odenkirk is always able to get believable performances out of his young actors, a remarkable feat when they're placed in outrageous situations - such as getting stung by a bee while stepping barefoot on a lit cigarette. I still look forward to seeing his Pity Card (about a first date at a Holocaust museum) with a pair of the same bumbling characters, Derek & Simon.

First Date
An uncompromising story for a short, involving an aggressive ex-con and his attempts to hook-up with a young man that he met in an online chat-room. The film has everything going against it, yet director Gary Huggins miraculously make it work thanks, in no small part, to the naturalistic performance of Santiago Vasquez.

Heavy Soul Heavy Soul
Oren Shai knows how to draw attention to a film. First, by sending a somewhat insulting email (if taken seriously); then, by mailing an elaborate package to my office designed to look like a mental patient's hospital records. I wasn't prepared to like it (granted, when folks usually go to this much work it is to compensate for something lacking in the film). However, it is an accomplished, stylish, well-made short with a star-turn by Sally Conway.

Another odd one, in this instance a bit forced but polished in its chance encounter between an exotic bug collector and a woman-on-the-run. It all wraps-up a bit too conveniently but it is lovely to look at.

Junior! The Wendy's Guy
It would be a shame if this film was merely considered a regional work. The subject, Junior, is the fastest register man in the southwest. Although he's a semi-cult figure at the University of Texas in Austin, his story would be of interest to audiences everywhere. It merely goes to prove that we should all take pride in whatever we do.

Pretty Kitty
Another one-joke short, of which I see dozens every year, although this one fails to include a joke.

Austin's own Nathan and David Zellner visit the Outback (of Australia, by way of Texas) and, along the way, discover spiritual service to the Lord, of the "turn the other cheek" variety. Somebody give these guys money to make another feature.

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Posted by dwhudson at March 20, 2006 1:45 AM


I failed to mention another documentary which I happened to catch after the rambling remarks above were scribbled on an airplane back from Texas. Screening on the final day of the festival, Monika Petrillo’s Flyabout is a personal documentary about her flight around the outskirts of Australia. As a travelogue, it’s quite fascinating (particularly for anyone intending to venture to the country, like myself). As for its success as a documentary, it entirely depends on how involved you allow yourself to get with the director’s relationship with her father.

Meanwhile, since someone asked offline, I opted against commenting on films that I reported on elsewhere, such as L'Enfant (included in our Telluride coverage) and This Film is Not Yet Rated (noted in the Sundance dispatch). They're both absolutely worth seeing, by the way.

Posted by: Jonathan Marlow at March 20, 2006 10:22 AM