April 30, 2010

Coming of Age at SFIFF '10

by Craig Phillips

The Man Who Will Come
It's mostly a coincidence but several of the films I saw at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, currently ongoing through May 6, were coming-of-age tales set from young protagonists' perspectives. Or perhaps it's not a coincidence, since American film festivals are frequently dotted with international films centered around children or teens coping with trying circumstances.

The best of the films I saw this week was certainly Giorgio Diritti's second feature, The Man Who Will Come (L'Uomo che verra), an elegant, lovely and ultimately devastating WWII piece that takes its time to build, setting the stage for a tragic climax that is more upsetting than anything you'll see in recent horror films. Set in a rural Italian village in 1943, the story is unfurled from the point of view of a young girl, Martina, who has become mute after the death of her baby brother. The film's arc covers the nine months between conception and birth—both of which she is on hand for—of her new sibling.

The Man Who Will ComeThe biggest detriment (besides the unappealing title, which is at least open to interpretation) for The Man Who Will Come is its occasionally choppy editing: the film could stand to be shorter, and some unsatisfying cuts do the cinematic equivalent of cutting scenes off mid-sentence. The young actress Greta Zuccheri Montanari has such an expressive, mournful face, she reminded me of classic neorealist cinema children, as in De Sica's The Children Are Watching Us—Diritti rarely overindulges here for our sympathies, though he may have a few too many shots of Martina sitting sadly by herself. However, the film has an unerring eye for time-and-place details, from the clothing fabrics to the lighting, and the simple way families eat and live in sparse surroundings. Diritti has an impressive way of keeping the film almost entirely from the child's point of view, and yet still gives us this memorable collection of expressive characters (both young and old), each cast with an eye toward realism. Not even the Germans are broadly drawn. Some are truly evil and commit unfathomable acts of atrocity, of course, but several others are allowed to show their human side to the village children.

I kept thinking of the Taviani brothers' Night of Shooting Stars, also set in an Italian village, a bit further along in WWII—and if this film isn't quite the masterpiece that one is, it still has its own brand of lyricism. Diritti's film is full of indelible images capturing the beauty of the Bolognese countryside that is, in some ways, itself at war with the invaders. We see a field of fireflies after a night of bombs detonating in the distance, air-dropping parachutes cascading like snowflakes, churches on hilltops, woods and caves that hide the partisans—all images that imbue the final-act scenes with an unforgettable potency.

My Queen Karo

Another new film screening at SFIFF and set from a young girl's perspective is the Belgian-Dutch coproduction My Queen Karo, which is based on some aspects from director Dorothée Van Den Berghe's childhood in the '70s. A young couple (Deborah François and Matthias Schoenaerts) and 10-year-old daughter Karo (Anna Franziska Jaeger) leave Belgium to live, or squat, with friends in a communal Amsterdam canal flat.

The setup of My Queen Karo brings to mind Lukas Moodysson's Together, but stylistically it's quite different, more amped-up and perhaps less joyous. If anything, it's more reminiscent of Julie Gavras' Blame It on Fidel!, which also focused on how a girl's longing for a normal childhood is disrupted by her parents' political idealism. Both films do right by focusing less on discourse, keeping things purely from the young perspective of confusion and longing. My Queen Karo is refreshingly free of condescension, judgment and whimsy.

Karo finds solace and hope in her swimming prowess—under the water, it is tranquil and she has more control. Back at her new home, meanwhile, her parents and their friends struggle with stealing power from other apartments, getting water, and sorting out their relationships with one another. The story seems ready to unfold in predictable fashion: a group of radicals experimenting with free love won't all end up enthralled with how things develop, as we've seen before. But to her credit, Van Den Berghe doesn't fall into these expected plotting traps, in part because the film is from Karo's perspective.

In its episodic structure, the film is mostly about mood and moments, which makes it difficult to fully be engrossed by its whole. Things get more complicated when a religious woman (a dead ringer for Frances McDormand) arrives to stay in the flat, and even more so when Karo leaves to stay with another family, where she finds herself able to have a childhood (sort of). Taking care of her mother's emotional needs, she has to grow up fast, but even as a child, she's about as pouty and needy as any of the adults in the room.

You won't find yourself approving of the parenting here—couples have sex in the flat while Karo's present, and late-night parties break out when the youngster just wants quiet. The artist/activist father in particular is less sympathetic; his idealism has rendered him stubbornly blind to the daily realities of raising a child in modern society, but the film still ultimately shows him as a caring if misguided dad. (It's also hard to understand what could compel a man married to the gorgeous Deborah François to stray, but that's free love for you.) Van Den Berghe balances the harder moments with such good-natured humor, and her direction is engaging and dynamic, keeping up with the energy level of our young protagonist. She's absolutely a director to be watched.

You Think You're the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiest

In a much lighter vein and making its US premiere is the Chilean charmer You Think You're the Prettiest, But You Are the Sluttiest, which couldn't have possibly lived up to that title, but still remains a fairly engaging romantic comedy. 19-year-old Javier (Martín Castillo) is a narcissistic, fast-working, smooth operator who picks up a pretty girl, Valentina, on a park bench and proposes that they spend two weeks together as a couple. At first, she'd rather swap CDs than spit, but doesn't take long to acquiesce to his advances. When things don't work out as he planned, the film feels—in the best possible way—like an Amerindie coming-of-age comedy, but with its own low-key Latin sensibility and humor. The cast (all new to me, at least) is quite appealing, and the film is buoyed by a lively, punk-and-cabaret-ish score.

Making his feature debut, director Che Sandoval is all of 25. Even if his framing and direction are intermittently sloppy, some overly rambling scenes, unpretentious stylings and youthful energy all add to the immediacy and allure. The sexual frankness (Javier's battle with premature ejaculation is a running issue) and chatty, funny dialogue may even put in mind early Kevin Smith (in fact, there even seems a reference to Smith's Silent Bob character at one point) -- only gentler and less strained, for however minor that praise is worth.

Posted by ahillis at 10:39 AM

April 27, 2010

TRIBECA '10 INTERVIEW: Ferzan Ozpetek

by Simon Abrams

LOOSE CANNONS filmmaker Ferzan Ozpetek (left)

Italian auteur Ferzan Ozpetek may not be as famous as Federico Fellini or even Giuseppe Tornatore, but he is still a talented and prolific filmmaker whose oeuvre may be the most consistently imported body of contemporary Italian work here in America. Since 1997, he has had five features released theatrically stateside, an especially remarkable feat considering that he's both openly gay and his films focus on gay protagonists—a subject at odds with the characteristically conservative politics of popular Italian cinema.

Most of Ozpetek's melodramas tackle the issue of a younger generation unable to be themselves amongst their family or friends until it's too late for them to be together. Similar to the central domestic concern of homebody-minded "New Italian" films, for instance, both His Secret Life and Facing Windows concern the acceptance of one's own true identity and, subsequently, forging a strong community. With the help of a translator, I sat down with Ozpetek to discuss his career and the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Loose Cannons (Mine Vaganti), his new drama about a young man (Riccardo Scarmacio) who can't bring himself to come out to his father.

Loose Cannons You've been called "the Italian Almodóvar" because your dramas embrace gay characters who are either finding their voices or have already found them. Is that a fair association?

As much as I appreciate the comparison with Almodóvar, I think it's not so much for the gay aspect of things, but for the specific view we both look at things. There are many things that are dramatically tragic in life, but you can show those with a certain levity. That's perhaps what connects us.

You're originally from Turkey. Do you identify more as a Turkish or Italian filmmaker?

I don't really think so much in terms of being Italian or Turkish, but of being a director. Traditionally, there are directors from various parts of the country—Bologna, Rome—who are very different. There's no such thing as an Italian director, first and foremost.

I was in Turkey until I was 17. I saw a lot of Turkish melodramas, and a lot of Italian, German and French movies. Cinema is my life. I work only in Italy, assistant-directing now for 16 years. I am very, very lucky. That I have two marvelous countries I come from is enough for me. I never distinguished between French, Italian or German movies. I only thought of good movies and bad movies.

Hamam (a/k/a Steam: The Turkish Bath) What was the impetus for making your debut feature, Hamam?

I wanted to make my first movie Italian-Turkish. I reversed the story that happened to me: I went from Turkey to Italy—while in the film, it's the other way around. For five years, I tried to get this done because basically, every single door was slammed in my face. It was a difficult sell. It was half in Italian, half in Turkish. In both countries, it was one of the first films to treat gay issues in a specific way, so it was very difficult to get it done. The producers almost fainted. They said, "Maybe we can change the character from being gay? Maybe you can do it all in Italian?"

The film was lucky for me because it was a prototype. I did it in five weeks for $300,000. After the shoot, it was in some archive for six months where I couldn't touch it. My big stroke of luck was being able to screen at Cannes at the Directors' Fortnight, which was probably more important than it is now for young directors. We sold the film in many different territories overseas. In France and Italy, it actually made money. That opened doors for all the films I did next.

Many of your films, like His Secret Life, are about revealing an inner truth to loved ones. What continually draws you back to the theme of personal unburdening?

I don't know! [laughs] The other day, I was at a video store looking for my films and I couldn’t find anything in the general section except Facing Windows. One of the clerks told me, "Oh, we have them but they're all in the 'Gay' section." I thought, "That’s almost racist!" These aren’t "gay films." Films are films. They shouldn't be segregated. People are people. That’s what these films are about.

I’m a little tired of that argument. The question of gay rights came up all the time, because in Italy there are a few issues with that, as in most countries. There was a lot of discussion, but it's not the most important aspect about the film. In the case of Loose Cannons, it's more about a generational divide. It's about a father who, rather than asking his son if he's happy in his life, prescribes what to do—what the situation should be. That's something parents often do and wrongly so. He is gay, yes, but he could have run off with the circus. That would cause a similar conflict, and the conflict is what counts.

Facing Windows Films like His Secret Life and Facing Windows feature characters insulating themselves with a community of family and friends. What does your own inner circle think of your work?

There are a lot of similarities between my films and my life. I know these people as they're inspired by people I know. To give you a random example, as this happened about ten days ago: In my building in Rome, I have a friend living in another apartment. He fell out of sight for a couple of days, so we tried to find out what happened to him. I was in Florence because I'll make [a production of] Aida next year, and I was on the train. My friends called to tell me: "We can't find Marco. We think something has happened." I returned to Rome, called the police and asked a friend of mine to use his computer to check every hospital. Nothing.

There was an accident, and they found a guy without any documents. I thought, "Knowing Marco, who is a bit of a loose cannon himself, this could be him." I went to intensive care to see if it was really my friend. It was, and he was in a coma. Someone needed to identify, and I only recognized him because of his hair. His face was totally covered over.

I arrived from the hospital straight from the train, and it was about 1am. This was that sense of family you were referring to. Even at that time, I called a doctor friend, a lawyer friend, all kinds of friends. We created this whole mechanism out of nothing that allowed us to get him the best treatment and out of this hospital. We texted him a few days ago, and he's much better now, but it made me realize that there's this family that watches out for one another. That's a lot like my films. I called his family in Sicily and they had already organized.

Loose Cannons There used to be 10 or 12 people in my life, but now there's more with every year. I have a very big sense of family and friends. It's in my films. My friend and I go to the supermarket to buy something for dinner or lunch. I ask him, "How many people are we having over?" He says, "Four people." We end up preparing a meal for 10, every day. I'm a director, but maybe I'm more of a cook. I like very much this life. I have a private life but I don't really have a private life. Having friends is really the meaning of life for me. I would put friendship above love. My partner of nine years agrees completely.

[Loose Cannons screens again at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28 and May 1. For more information, please visit the official site.]

Posted by ahillis at 7:59 AM

April 24, 2010

TRIBECA '10 PODCAST: Joey Arias, Basil Twist & Bobby Sheehan

Basil Twist and Joey AriasPhotographer-turned-filmmaker Bobby Sheehan began his career documenting the late-'70s NYC punk scene, which was around the time that he befriended cabaret singer and drag artist Joey Arias (also memorably seen in Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and Wigstock: the Movie). However, it wasn't until Arias found and shared his biggest success with puppeteer extraordinaire Basil Twist—their wild 2008 stage collaboration "Arias with a Twist"—that Sheehan decided to turn his camera on the both of them in Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy:

This euphoric documentary explores the dynamic creative relationship between Arias and Twist, but it also takes us on a tour of downtown New York's club, art, fashion, and performance scene starting in the late '70s, a time when these worlds were in constant dialogue, constantly inspiring each other. Director Bobby Sheehan has unearthed never-before-seen footage from the era of Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Keith Haring, Grace Jones, and Divine. The trip is bittersweet—considering AIDS would soon sweep through the scene, claiming stars like John Sex, Klaus Nomi and Keith Haring—but ultimately uplifting when viewed in light of Arias and Twist, whose work continues to evolve and carry the torch of artistic partnership.

In a back room of the Tribeca filmmakers lounge, the four of us (sometimes irreverently) discussed how a cabaret drag artist, a puppeteer and a photographer finally came together as collaborators, with other topics including Pee Wee Herman, the late Klaus Nomi and the artistic importance of "ordering the pork chop."

To listen to the podcast, click here. (18:04)
[WARNING: Explicit language!]

Podcast Music
INTRO: Klaus Nomi: "Lightning Strikes"
OUTRO: Danny Elfman: "Big Top Pee Wee (Main Theme)"

[Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy screens again at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27, 28 and May 1. For more info, please visit the official website.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:32 PM

April 21, 2010

TRIBECA '10: Metropia


Why is it that when cinema presents a dystopian world, it's more often derivative of films and literature past than not? Is it that the greatest works of the repressed-future storyline have already been crafted, or that even the most imaginatively decayed milieu is limited by what we know to be true of our modern times? Or more forgivable but far scarier, is it that lurking somewhere in the aesthetic and thematic overlap between these tales is an accurate prediction of what really might happen if and when our resources ran out and the wrong parties came to power?

MetropiaIf Egyptian-Swedish filmmaker and animator Tarik Saleh's noirishly stylized Metropia feels a bit slack in dramatic originality (the hierarchy is Orwellian, the paranoia Kafka-esque—but hey, it's co-written by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's posthumously popular Stig Larsson!), its ambitious vision certainly carries a wow factor. As the last remaining oil dries up and the global markets crash in this new millennium, the all-too-pervasive Trexx Corporation—led by burly man-behind-the-curtain Ivan Bahn (voiced by Udo Kier)—has conjoined all of Europe by a labyrinthine subway system called "The Metro." 2024 is now a rotted landscape of concrete husks above, with the cold steel spires interconnected below. A permanent haze diffuses all color and light, as if all Europeans are in a fog.

Metropia In a grim Stockholm call center, egg-headed phone jockey Roger (an oddly cast Vincent Gallo)—a distrustful and mildly depressive Moby-like everyman who secretly rides his bicycle instead of commuting with the masses—has begun to hear another man's voice his head. Perhaps coincidentally, a Hitchcock blonde named Nina (Juliette Lewis), a dead ringer for his favorite shampoo-ad model and fantasy girl, has turned up in his life on the same day his bike is busted and he's forced to take the Metro. An absurdly convoluted and occasionally dryly funny conspiracy soon unravels about as quickly as it's revealed, with mind control devices implanted at the hair follicle, a familial skirmish between ruler and terrorist, and one subversively exploited Hello Kitty doll. Think Brazil as reimagined by Roy Andersson, though admittedly not as fresh or vital as either.

Metropia But that's perhaps glossing over the film's uniqueness. Last year's Moon won over fans after blatantly building off references from 2001 and other sci-fi landmarks, and even if Metropia doesn't seem to exude the same intent for homage, its idiosyncratic design and dizzying atmosphere make for an exotic experience. Utilizing a proprietary animation method, characters are rendered from actual photos, their shapes and shading left lifelike while their proportions—especially facial features—have been subtly contorted like in Drew Friedman's stippled illustrations. The models look three-dimensional but often move as if 2-D cutouts, a visual discordance that figures into the overall feeling that something is really off in this domain. Background voices have a metallic tenor, and Swedish composer (and sometime heavy-metal vocalist) Krister Linder's droning ambience is as creepy as it is complicated, not unlike some of Sunn O))) and Boris' compositions in The Limits of Control.

Metropia It's a wild construction, but in the end, I wished that the plot twists turned more elegantly and cleverly, the humor was more outlandish to match the scenery, or that the whole piece spilled into something more Lynchian—expressionistic and ambiguous. It's not easy to write science fiction that stands out from the pack, especially when staged in a dystopia. However, Saleh's film shows little more depth than a puzzling sociopolitical analogy about "Big Brother" and the inexplicably frightening unification of Europe, so here's hoping a man of his technical prowess still has, well, a brighter future ahead.

[Metropia screens at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival on May 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18, and is available today on VOD in select areas. For more info, please visit the official website.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:59 PM

April 15, 2010

The Myth Of Age-Appropriate Cinema: Summer Hours

by Eric Kohn

SummerHoursDVDHollywood studios often consider young males as their target demographic, but moviegoers with broader sensibilities should rarely consider age as a restrictive force. With very few exceptions, a story rises or falls on the basis of what appears onscreen. I was met with continuing resistance at the Sundance Film Festival in January when I expressed my reservations over the middling plot of Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance's gorgeous but narratively uneven portrait of a disastrous marriage. More than once, I was told, "Maybe you would understand it better if you had children." Or maybe people with children are seeing a movie that doesn't exist. I know a gay colleague whose love for Blue Valentine certainly has nothing to do with a deeper connection to the relationship featured in the movie. Subjective involvement need not correlate with spectatorial identification. Not for me, anyway.

If that were true, I would lack any emotional connection to movies featuring characters whose life experiences lie firmly outside my own. But I love Olivier Assayas's patient character study, Summer Hours, which Criterion releases on DVD next week, despite that its central protagonist is several decades older than me. Assayas's story revolves around a middle aged economist (Charles Berling) coping with the aftermath of his mother's death, selling off her vast treasure trove of art works and other precious belongings, and sifting through his childhood memories with the support of his two oft-distracted siblings. I have one sibling and, thankfully, both of my parents remain alive and well. But the emotional undercurrent of Summer Hours resonated with me quite strongly both times I viewed it.


Assayas builds a detailed sense of place and time, thoroughly immersing us in the drama at hand with a chatty opening sequence centering on the mother's 75th birthday party. The characters enjoy the seasonal weather, and speak about inconsequential things -- the ephemera of daily life -- until the mother pulls her eldest son indoors to discuss the practical matter of dying wishes. By the second act, she has died, and the bulk of the movie revolves around the siblings attempting to fulfill these wishes without encountering too many speed bumps along the way.

It's not a terribly inefficient process. The spell of Summer Hours comes from its leisurely tone, and out of that develops a rare authenticity that modern family dramas generally neglect in favor of broad character types and simple exposition. (See: The Tyler Perry canon, and virtually every token movie about the Christmas spirit to lurch into theaters each holiday season.) Personal baggage is not a prerequisite for comprehending Summer Hours. It elevates a bittersweet spirit to the level of sublime by simply lettings its characters exist on their own terms, not ours.

Of course, Assayas made Summer Hours for his own personal reasons, having dealt with the death of his mother prior to production. But it does not feel burdened by that exclusive outlook, particularly since it engages with the cyclical nature of generational shifts. As Noah Baumbach does in Greenberg, Assayas pays heed to the influx of younger people with a party scene, ending not with the movie's main character but rather his younger relative. With this shift, Assayas expands his focus to the rhythms of life and death. Anyone alive should be able to relate.

Posted by ahillis at 4:18 PM | Comments (2)

April 9, 2010

When the Conversation Stops.

By Vadim Rizov

If you're a sane human being interested in film but still harboring an instinct for financial self-preservation — if, in other words, you're interested in watching rather than making or writing about movies — you're probably not aware of events like The Conversation, in which a few weekends ago (to borrow the official copy)you could join in a day that promised to "bring together media-makers, techies, and social media strategists to share experiences and advice, map out the future together, and ideally begin some lasting collaborations." (Translation: network and chatter.)

conversation.jpgTopics of discussion: marketing your movie, making use of the pestilent chimera known as "New Media" and so on. Bloggage ensued, though pretty much exclusively from participants. Still, nothing could top this quote from Kino Lorber president Richard Lorber: “everything’s possible but nothing’s working.”


That's the problem in a nutshell: all the talk of becoming "early pioneers" and "using social media" — often nebulous and implicitly self-congratulatory — could remind you of, say, Barbara Ehrenreich's definitive evisceration of business books a few years back, with their specious language covering up the fact that not much is getting done. And for all the talk of new ways of connecting with audiences, it was hard not to get the feeling (as Twitter feeds clogged and dispatches consisted largely of participants congratulating each other) that much was being said and little had a chance of being actualized. Everything was possible but nothing was working.

Why should you care? Well, part of the problem here is that — for all the talk of finding new audiences — you don't. Let's be nice for a few moments though: one of the good things about events like "The Conversation" and DIY Days is that they at least start destroying the stupid '90s vision of the independent filmmaker as someone (a la Kevin Smith) with nothing more than talent, a dream and a series of maxed-out credit cards, a business strategy that destroyed god knows how many lives. For anyone who keeps their ear close to the ground before embarking on a grand filmmaking adventure, it's probably a good thing to have, out there, reminders that filmmaking involves actual money that has to be accounted for one of these days.

I once saw Claire Denis nearly bite an NYU student's head off in response to one of those stupid questions about how to make the movie you wanted without compromising with your backers; she simply told him that you have to make movies with responsible budgets, and there was an end to it. That's a good message to trickle down to audiences that want to romanticize filmmakers (especially considering how Denis isn't exactly synonymous with "soulless budget disciplinarian.")

On the other hand: the professionalization of indie film — accelerated by the proliferation of innumerable internet technologies designed, one way or another, to promote networking, all shooting it out with each other — has led to a kind of parody of normal Hollywood business gossip. The assumption seems to be that now that the vast public has been trained to care about box-office receipts, maybe previously tough-sell indies can reach the same status by marketing themselves aggressively, even before they come out (an especially bad idea: the "story" behind your movie is just as important a tool as, say, a positive review).


Hence the increasing popularity of panels and conferences designed to reassure participants that they're doing it right. The problem here is that the collective noise behind "business" will drown out discussion of the films themselves. Vladimir Nabokov once snidely noted that "Intellectuals do not join collectives," and the same message could be valuable for directors: when you're producing and directing and spending more time hyping your movie and yourself rather than thinking about the work — even if that's the only pragmatic paradigm you've been offered — something's probably gone wrong somewhere.

The thing about these events is that they come at a peculiar time: as the independent film economy becomes more visibly fractured than ever, both filmmaker and viewer are sort of landed in the same boat, trying to figure out which opportunities are worthwhile and which a time-suck. The truth (as ever) is that no one knows anything, and even detailed case studies will only get you so far. In a sense, the history of independent film has been one of improvisation and trial-and-error for a long time; witness the endless stream of films released to no notice and subsequent rediscovered years or decades hence by groups of crazed fans. At a time when the entire economy is in free-fall (or tentative recovery, who knows), it's odd to host panel after panel about the professionalization of one of the least professional arenas of film production.

Honestly, I just want to spit bile at these events, which at best combine sporadic specific advice with generalities and networking. Nothing wrong with the latter; it's how many things get done, for better or worse. What's unnerving here is all the talk of an "audience" and "new strategies" that -- despite years of the internet colonizing society -- have yet to yield a breakthrough. The old system (paying a good publicist to push your movie through festivals, waiting on crucial reviews) wasn't necessarily much better -- but the whole system's been flawed, as it always will be for any marginalized commodity.

As Michael Tully says, "hasn’t this always been a freakish lottery? Hasn’t it always been a once-in-a-lifetime three-quarter court buzzer beater?" Pretty much. The thing is, if you make movies with the right people, they'll always be fun, and who knows how many folks make movies just to (for the reason Godard allegedly did) meet girls or whatever. But the effort to professionalize independent film feels like a (fun, with lunch) way to ignore the cold truth: most people have never cared, don't care, and never will care. It's impossible to run around that by draping the trappings of corporate America upon a weird industry. This panic will pass -- ignored, now and in the future, by an "audience" that's referenced rather than reached.

The panel movement is one of the most superficial out there; at the end of the day, things will still get done based on an insular series of meetings and mutual interests. No need to publicize it like anything's actually being extended to the outside world. The only good thing: if you, the reader, ever pick up on it and realize the whole era when independent filmmakers could be fetishized as financial rebels and romantic outsiders is over, that would be grand. Assuming such viewers still exist.

Postscript: Meanwhile, read The Take-Back Manifesto on indieWire, by Michael Tully and with spice by yours truly.

Posted by ahillis at 12:01 PM | Comments (6)

April 6, 2010

SXSW '10: The Remainders

South by So What, you say? On one hand, cheap beer and thick queso and Barton Springs are soooo last month—but then again, with programming so rich, it takes a couple weeks to catch up with screeners and post-fest screenings. Here are a trio of Austin-based gems from this year's festival that, better late than never, you should watch out for:

The Happy Poet

The Happy Poet
dir. Paul Gordon

If Slacker defined the shaggy eccentricities of Austin life circa the early '90s, then Gordon's similarly low-key comedy is a delightful, deadpan reappraisal of the town's prototypical charm some two decades later. The writer-director-editor is hilariously dry as the titular bard Bill, a reserved young man who chases an underdog dream of running a healthy, organic food stand. With tons of heart but very little business savvy, Bill sinks what little money he has into his cart, ingredients and menu, ridiculously overwrapping his veggie sandwiches, squandering his overhead by giving away too many free samples (especially to, say, a pretty girl he shyly pursues) and awkwardly making the rest up as life breezes on by. What makes the film so winsome, beyond a lively supporting cast of believable kooks, is Gordon's sincerity, both as a performer and filmmaker. There are no pretentious, overarching themes unless you find them in your own day-to-day existence, the budding romance doesn't feel forced, and the plot turns casually and in long takes, as if we're mostly here to hang out—much like Slacker did—with a gang of flawed but likable Austinites with odd, optimistic worldviews.

Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of Rural Radio
dir. Sam Wainwright Douglas

Citizen Architect The Holy Modal Rounders... Bound to Lose co-director Douglas' heavily bearded mug makes a tiny but memorable appearance in The Happy Poet, which might be telling of how personal this hour-long portrait is considering you'd never know, without reading a press kit or interview, that he's the son-in-law of his late subject here. Mississippi-born architect Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee, who died of leukemia in 2001 shortly after winning a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, applied his innovation and aptitude towards the betterment of the rural poor. Giving up his full-time practice to accept a position at the Auburn University School of Architecture, Mockbee founded the Rural Studio, a program that took students off-campus and into the rustic South to build aesthetically wild and utterly practical homes and community spaces in economically floundering locales—not exactly a moneymaker for a man of his talents. (The foundation of "The Yancy Chapel" was cast from recycled tires and concrete, while his "Butterfly House" channels air flow via its winged roof.) Crisply shot to honor the art of Mockbee's legacy, and told in an unpretentiously straight-forward but captivating manner, Douglas' film is an inspiring ode to creative rebellion and big-hearted pragmatism.

Lovers of Hate
dir. Bryan Poyser

Lovers of Hate We're not painted a very flattering first impression of Rudy (Chris Doubek, yet another costar in The Happy Poet) as he slams quarters in a self-service car wash to be used as a makeshift shower. Recently dumped after a 12-year marriage, Rudy comes off like one of the man-boys from the Apatow universe—a scruffy, embittered weirdo who still hasn't figured out adult responsibilities as, presumably, a late thirty-something. Badgering his poor, exasperated ex Diana (Heather Kafka) into pretending they're still a couple when his brother Paul (Alex Karpovsky)—a smug, well-to-do author of a Harry Potter-like fantasy franchise—strolls into town for a reading, Rudy comes off as a pathetic, ungrateful sad-sack. But is he so bad, and was he always this way? The behavioral setup of Poyser's slyly comical three-hander is a necessary red herring that reveals itself when Paul finds out about the breakup, then selfishly exploits it by snatching Diana away for a romantic getaway in a secluded, fancy-pants Park City subdivision. Of course, unbeknownst to either of them, Rudy has snuck his way into the four-story mountain lodge (with six bathrooms and an elevator!) that Paul is borrowing, and so begins an in-one-door, out-the-other comedy of errors as our loser anti-hero begins to gain our sympathies, even as he creepily spies on and attempts to thwart the inappropriate love affair, like some villain in a psychological thriller. The film could've worked just as a damn funny tale of sibling rivalry gone awry, but Poyser enhances the naturalism—and raises the karmic stakes—by imbedding the discrete one-upmanship into a bizarre love triangle in which all three players are constantly straddling the line between compassionate and deceitfully bad-mannered. Cleverly structured and cringe-inducingly honest, Lovers of Hate illustrates how fraudulent most rom-coms are, but doesn't lose any laughs in the process.

Posted by ahillis at 2:23 PM