March 12, 2012

SXSW 2012: Critic's Notebook #1

by Steve Dollar

King Kelly

It's King Kelly's world. We just live in it. In Andrew Neel's hectic feature, a teenage sexpot—played by Louisa Krause, in a radical (and rad!) gear-shift from her role as Lizzie Olsen's docile indoctrinator in Martha Marcy May Marlene—riots through the world as the director and star of her own 24-hour reality event: Her life is a performance is an unending digital stream, piped from her cell phone to an audience of pervs with screen names like Poo Bare and a laughing chorus of YouTube commenters. The film, which premiered at the 2012 edition of the South by Southwest Film Festival, might have been tailored specifically for the event's mushrooming interactive component (now reported to be a bigger draw than the film and music portions combined). Kelly is, to paraphrase the theme song from Drive, "a real human being," but she's also a construct, a phenomenon, a symptom, a trainwreck, a superstar.

Neel, whose live-action gamer documentary Darkon won a 2006 audience award at SXSW, has some background in meta-reality filmmaking. His 2008 film The Feature, co-directed with French artist and Warhol scenester Michel Auder, framed footage sourced from its subject's autobiographical video archives with new material that played around with Auder's contemporary persona. In Auder's 1960s heyday, of course, video was a kind of avant-garde form, an art project that became inseparable from the artist's life. King-Kelly-SXSW-wet-t-shirt.jpg For Kelly, a blonde Narcissus in American flag panties, booty-shaking and motor-mouthing her way to glory from her suburban bedroom, life without POV video isn't living. Yet, in a way, she's still an ongoing performance art project—it's actual people who then pose tactical and strategic problems.

The project, which is shot entirely on a cell phone and a cheap Canon digital camera—pretty much as you see it onscreen—quickly takes the form of a sex comedy-cum-thriller as a stolen car, a cache of missing drugs, a ridiculously out-of-hand Fourth of July party and a rogue New Jersey state trooper send the movie crashing into a series of catastrophes, forecast by Kelly's aside to her "biffle" Jordan (Libby Woodbridge) as she snorts up a baggie of ketamine: "Oh, it's going to be one of those nights."

Indeed it is. Propelled by Krause's charismatic performance, the film intends to be a commentary on what it presents, but that never keeps it from being absurdly entertaining, even as it illustrates how life in middle-class America has become a degraded digital fantasy.

God Bless America

Bobcat Goldthwait would see this as pure documentary. The neurotic comedian turned auteur was back with another savage satire in God Bless America. Like King Kelly, it takes significant inspiration from Natural Born Killers, although much more directly: Joel Murray (Mad Men) plays a corporate office drone stuck in middle-aged limbo who decides he's suffered enough from the erosion of common decency. After losing his job and discovering his bratty daughter doesn't want to visit him anymore, a visit to the doctor reveals he has an inoperable brain tumor. Years of fantasizing the assassination of shrill reality TV show stars and American Idol judges, not to mention his shithead neighbors raging banal on the other side of his thin duplex wall, suddenly become tantalizingly real. And it's off to the races, with a cheery, psycho accomplice—Tara Lynne Barr's apple-cheeked schoolgirl—providing moral support, tactical advice and creeping him out with come-hither eyelash batting. The film's best moments are not so much its speechifying about the decline in American behavior and surging tide of general douche-baggery. Idiocracy got there first and best. It's the sad-sack everyman gravitas that Murray brings to his scenes, coupled with a gleeful appropriation of Kardashianized contemporary crap culture that, as the director noted at a post-premiere Q&A, required no imagination to recreate. He just changed the names of the real programs he spoofs. This "violent movie about kindness" offers a Swiftian mandate to be nice to your neighbor.

REC 3: Genesis

Reality TV also was part of the once-clever concept driving the Spanish [REC] series: new-wave zombie movies in which the outbreak of a virus turns the residents of a Barcelona apartment building into a bunch of flesh-eating freaks, all captured on camera by the very surprised crew of a local documentary news team. The POV/found footage format is its own genre these days, so it was probably wise for filmmakers Paco Plaza and Jaume Balagueró to change up the program with their third installment in the franchise, [REC] 3: Genesis. Set on the same day, the story follows the glamorous wedding party of a stunning couple, Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martin), surrounded by loving family at a romantic estate in the countryside. The celebration is going full swing but there are hints of trouble: an uncle has been doddering about with a strange look in his eyes, nursing an unexplained wound on his arm. And who are those guys in the yellow hazmat suits poking through the gardens? The film's tongue-in-cheek tone serves a slow build-up, as the wedding videographer (a Guillermo Del Toro look-alike) mentors a young cousin with a handicam on the art of cinema as their POV shots fill the screen. By the time the party's crashed by some remarkably athletic zombies executing dashing parkour moves, the movie's signature video conceit is tossed aside for more traditional form. Even without the handheld hijinks, the movie succeeds as a bracing thriller with plenty of jump scares, some religious mumbo-jumbo to keep the zombies frozen in their tracks quivering to some weird mambo rhythms in their undead mental jukeboxes, and, more so than its predecessors, a social comedy about Spanish family dynamics that offers its home audience a ton of inside jokes.

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Posted by ahillis at March 12, 2012 4:44 PM