March 23, 2009

SXSW '09: Films of the Week

Drag Me to HellIt was great, but I was ready to come home. That's the title of Kris Swanberg's debut feature, and also how my body felt after 10 days in Austin, where the late nights, early mornings, too much free beer (is there such a thing?), delicious yet heavy-in-the-gut Mexican food and noisy rock shows clearly took its toll on your intrepid reporter. Far more tireless was seemingly omnipresent festival producer Janet Pierson, whose inaugural year confirmed my optimistic predictions, that aside from a few conspicuous enhancements (at least for press: shuttle buses, reserved tickets, and a screener library), the proverbial boat was not rocked, her transition seamless, and the hiccups nominal. 'Twas a fine year experientially, but what about the films?

Between the beginning of the year and the end of the fest, I can officially weigh in on 31 of the features that screened at SXSW. Sundance leftovers like Moon, Adventureland, Humpday, Burma VJ, You Wont Miss Me, and We Live in Public still taste great when reheated by the Austin sun, and Sam Raimi's first horror movie in years, Drag Me to Hell (soon to be released, but screening here to a packed crowd as a polished-enough work print), was, as my colleague Scott Foundas whispered to me in the exiting aisle, "pure pleasure." A throwback to his Army of Darkness days—rife with camp dialogue, demon-possessed innocents, bodily goo, Looney Toons violence, and enough Dutch angles to warrant watching while leaning on someone's shoulder—Raimi's gypsy curse flick probably won't win over new fans, almost as if designed to be a love letter-cum-apology to the fanboys who still hound him to direct Evil Dead 4.

Speaking of anticipated follow-ups, Universal teased two lucky audiences with 22 minutes from Sacha Baron Cohen's new gotcha comedy Brüno, comprised of three extended scenes, plus SXSW-specific intros in which Cohen messed with Texas and sent up his real-life British persona. Okay, so Borat's naked man-on-man tussle and conference streaking may be a tough act to top, but wait'll you see the hilariously ugly response of a mixed martial-arts arena crowd when Cohen's gay Austrian fashion journo reunites with his lover as the faux-hetero host of "Straight Dave's Man Slammin' Max Out." Not three years after that wicked Kazakhstani nearly had me peeing on the floor from laughter, it's happening again.

St. NickBut enough about that studio fare! Without a doubt, the best film at SXSW 2009 was writer-director David Lowery's lovely, lived-in, slow-burning debut feature St. Nick. Front-loaded with very little dialogue, the trade-ins are lushly photographed vignettes and sensory textures (my god, why can't more young filmmakers pay as much attention to film grammar, or craft their diegetic sound design this purposefully?) that reveal themselves methodically, pensively: the rustic Texas landscape in autumn, a hidden majesty from somewhere in Badlands country. A resourceful little boy and girl (real-life siblings Tucker and Savanna Sears, compelling presences both) break into and co-opt a dilapidated old house as their own. The wood stove is lit, a necessary exhaust pipe mounted, his braces fixed with a pair of pliers and a mirror, lettuce for sandwiches curiously sniffed before their crispness savored, and weighted traps set should any adults come looking for these adolescent drifters. Yet no one comes right away, or could it be that these kids live in a world where only they exist? Lowery's film adeptly taps into the child's-eye perspective of underage survival similarly found in Treeless Mountain, Nobody Knows, or Children of Invention, but here it isn't just about naturalism, but the detached dreamlike mystery of watching or recalling these events as a grown-up. When the girl bicycles to a park and naïvely crashes a birthday party, the screams of piñata-bashing brats are primal, even terrorizing, as is the stampede of cattle ranchers who later chase our pipsqueak heroes through the fields they've trespassed on. Their vulnerability is palpable, but Lowery wisely chooses to neither romanticize nor make tragic the lives of runaways; it's the surreal disconnect between youth and maturity that colors St. Nick's magic. If it were only shot on film, not HD, this one would be a far more dangerous contender on the indie awards and fest circuit.

Among the narrative features, also noteworthy was Make-Out With Violence, from the unrelated collective known as the Deagol Brothers. An awesomely gonzo amalgamation of John Hughes coming-of-ager, painterly Terrence Malick evocation of Americana, George Romero zombie horror and Sundance-friendly indie rock, this impressionistic, silly-scary genre buster doesn't get much deeper than midnight entertainment, but what else do you need during that one crazy summer when your ex-girlfriend came back to life and you kept her locked in the bathroom? And if you now think you've seen or heard it all in zombie cinema, The Tracey Fragments director Bruce McDonald's Pontypool still proves unexpectedly refreshing. Dedicated to an unusually minimal viewpoint (inside a radio station, where grizzled shockjock Stephen McHattie and his producer almost never see the swarming horde) and an infection caused by semiotics (I will say no more!), this one's a smart, dementedly funny crowd-pleaser for the post-grad set.

45365On the documentary stage, jury prize winner 45365 really does deserve the category's highest praise—now if only its zip-code title were as easy to remember as 90210. Co-directed, edited and scrumptiously shot by brothers Turner and Bill Ross, this insightful, witty collage of caught moments in their small hometown of Sidney, OH is charmingly untethered by traditional plot and portrait arcs; in an age where most docs are grafted over by pop narratives for greater suspense, drama or momentum, 45365 works specifically because of its wonderfully curated aimlessness. Amongst the little leaguers and barbers and demolition derby racers and trick-or-treaters, a police officer convinces a citizen that his cable TV lines weren't maliciously cut, and maybe when the picture went out, he should've called his cable company first. A classic-rock DJ argues with a caller about whether a Who song is about a dildo or an accordion. Local impersonator Elvis Jr. sings his heart out to an outdoor crowd, while someone pokes the drooping tarp above to keep it from collapsing under the rain. How the brothers Ross convinced their friends, family and neighbors to be completely at ease and unconscious of their cameras would be an impressive feat on its own, but their formal photographic rigor comes off relaxed, too. With two of the only major throughlines looming—a judge's re-election campaign and a high school football team's big game—45365's beautifully unexpected ending would seem like an anti-surprise if it weren't the most honest, humanist choice for the rhythms set up before. These first-time filmmakers are true talents to watch, and hopefully they can pull off a second feature without the aid of a supportive town who watched the Ross boys grow up.

Doc runners-up include the compelling, but truly divisive Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same, perhaps the most stunningly photographed documentary I've seen in years. Afterschool (also here at SXSW) and Wild Combination cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes' directorial debut follows conceptual artist and entitled jerk Enright as he travels from Brooklyn to his girlfriend's family's Redwoods cabin to waste thousands of dollars' worth of gallery funds on his cheap, trashy provocations (defecating on an outdoor stage in low-rent Matthew Barney grotesqueries, jumping rope while repeatedly yelling "Fuck you, you piece of shit"). He's a delusional sham and horrible to everyone around him, and yet, there's something curiously watchable about his self-destructive narcissism. Perhaps it's because Lipes has secretly made a creatively condescending doc, a project far more artful than anything Enright literally craps out in front of us, as if Lars von Trier's The Idiots had been remade with reality-TV stars who weren't in on the joke.

Best Worst MovieMaybe Enright's success could also explain how Troll 2, now widely considered the Plan 9 From Outer Space for the Facebook generation, has been playing to sold-out midnight crowds across North America some two decades after it was unleashed on the world. (There have been homemade video games, "Trollympics" events, soldiers in Iraq screening it for one another, even an homage in Guitar Hero 2). Cheerfully investigating this particular phenomenon as well as how cult classics find their fawning audiences in general, Best Worst Movie was directed by the notorious film's child star Michael Stephenson, now grown-up and amused to track down its participants. Alabama dentist and affable co-star George Hardy loves to recite for fans his strangest zinger ("You can't piss on hospitality!"), Italian director Claudio Fragasso shows complex feelings about the touring revival of his "parable" and the audiences who laugh at both the intentionally and unintentionally funny bits, and writer Rossella Drudi seriously still demands the film is a "ferocious analysis of today's society." Funny as hell, Stephenson's film is also focused enough to understand that cult success has its limitations, as his 15-minute clock ticks away.

Though I missed two of the doc features that were buzzed about—Winnebago Man and Trust Us, This Is All Made Up—I'll have my chance next week at the Sarasota Film Festival, which I'll be covering for an extended weekend. My deepest gratitude to the SXSW staff, filmmakers and community who made my job easier, and see you for an early morning dip in Barton Springs next March.

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Posted by ahillis at March 23, 2009 11:17 PM

Screener library? Reserved seats? Wow! Revolutionary. Actually, I'm saving my dwindling funds for Fantastic Fest in the fall. But glad to hear about it all.

Posted by: Steve Dollar at March 24, 2009 9:06 PM

"Winnebago Man" deserves the hype until it backs off some of its more interesting themes towards the end and settles for a simplistic conclusion.

In other news, had no idea about "Drag Me To Hell," and I seethe with jealousy that you caught it.

Posted by: Rico at March 31, 2009 1:36 PM
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