SXSW Movie Roundup: Documentaries Overpower Quirky Film Festival's Slate
"Brooklyn Castle": An engrossing and engaging film similar to "Spellbound." It concerns a number of minority middle school students who excel at chess. Driven by the devotion of their chess instructor and coach, the students travel around the country to compete in various national and state championships, amidst severe budget cuts, making it difficult for the program to survive.
The audience was rooting for these kids. They are all so wonderful and committed to chess that you want them to succeed. It’s a total winner as a documentary, never boring, tells a great story and is well-paced.
Conservative filmgoers will like the political subtext. These kids – all minorities – excel by devoting themselves to their study of chess. Neither they nor their parents play the victim card. And what a shock – they succeed. Plus, they are guided with the total commitment of their instructor and coach – the kind of teachers that every child should have.
"Her Master’s Voice": This is the story of an amazingly talented young ventriloquist named Nina Conti. Following the death of her much older mentor/lover, Nina inherits his puppet collection. She packs up a few of them and travels to Vent Haven – a kind of eternal resting place for the puppets of ventriloquists who have passed away. It’s located in a museum in Kentucky, and the film follows Nina as she visits it simultaneously for the annual Ventriloquist’s Convention.
Weird and wacky idea for a documentary? Yes. However, it is also funny, emotional and intriguing. As Nina points out, “puppets are uniquely bereaved objects – they’ve lost their voices.” They often take on the role of the uncensored creative side of the psyche, which literally says what most of us never would. Nina records herself having conversations with her puppet friends, as she/they grieve over the loss and struggle to find meaning in this very odd craft she’s chosen. Being British, Nina and her troupe offer plenty of dark humor and insights into the situation. Some of the moments felt scripted, but despite that, it’s a totally entertaining film, and Ms. Conti is a gifted artist.
"We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists" is a thought-provoking and challenging work concerning the infamous hackers known as Anonymous I reviewed previously at Big Hollywood.
"The Imposter": Produced in the style and theme of Errol Morris’ work. It is a captivating, mind-blowing story of self-deception, in which a young Frenchman convinces a grieving Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who went missing three years previously. It effectively uses interviews with everyone involved, interspersed with dramatic re-enactments. The film demonstrates how the collision of a pathological liar with a family in a terrible state of denial can result in an astonishing hoax. You will be amazed at how easy it is to fool people – including the “authorities.”
This year's SXSW narrative selections were not as compelling as the documentaries, but that is rarely the case anyway. Curiously, there were four films that dealt with societal anxiety over the kidnapping or disappearances of children.
The Mythology of a Boogeyman that steals off into the night with kidnapped children stretches across virtually every culture. It’s a perpetual anxiety, and thus it is not surprising to find it perpetually reflected in popular culture. The first such film I saw was "The Imposter", mentioned above. On the narrative side is a rather creepy and unsettling film out of Ireland, called "The Citadel." A man watches helplessly as a trio of feral children attack his pregnant wife. She dies, but the baby survives. The man, however, is stricken with agoraphobia.
The action takes place entirely inside a decaying housing project, whose only remaining residents are junkies and geriatrics. A tiny understaffed hospital remains as well, and its personnel includes a nutty priest who believes the feral children to be demons.Thematically, the film is about overcoming paralyzing fear and is a cathartic work by its director – who was himself attacked by a group of feral children in his late teens. He then suffered from agoraphobia.
The location is a character in the film. This bleak, dilapidated, ultra-creepy, underpopulated zone where even bus drivers won’t go heightens the character’s isolation.
Indeed, the physical location of the action is perfectly reflective of the barren and crumbling soul of the protagonist.
"The Tall Man" is a flawed film with a great premise that ultimately collapses under its own weight. A small, decaying town has a child disappearance problem, apparently perpetrated by the mythical “Tall Man” – a boogeyman figure whose mythology has sprung up as a result of the disappearances. What follows are numerous twists and revelations, but regrettably there are too many for the story to handle deftly. The rest of the film works; it is well-produced, with gloomy Northwest locations that add to the creepy atmosphere. The ultimate revelation is actually rather satisfying and clever, although it takes multiple apparent-endings before we get there. The film’s subtext is that these children disappear because the parents of this abandoned mining town have also abandoned their responsibilities to care for them properly.
"Babymakers" is a comedy that starts off well and devolves into farce that doesn’t really hold together. The film centers around a couple that can’t seem to get pregnant, so the husband attempts to steal a sperm donation he’d made years ago. That alone should give you some idea of the tone and why it probably isn’t a big draw for conservative filmgoers. However, I admit to laughing a lot, even at stuff that was over-the-top gross and filthy, so the film delivers on that puerile level.
"Compliance" boasts an intriguing premise and offers up plenty of controversy in the process. I’ll let this reviewer explain my feelings. I will say, however, that the premise of the film has merit – a dramatization of Stanley Milgram’s experiments regarding authority. The execution ultimately fails, though, because the story centers on the abuse and not the people.
"Killer Joe" may be one of the most depraved and meritless pieces of garbage ever to hit the movie screen. I was astonished to learn that the film, directed by William Friedkin, was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play. All I can say is that the Pulitzer committee must’ve been high on crack. The film is intended as a pitch-black comedy, with moments intended to shock and disgust; but is utterly nihilistic, and shows people engaging in perverse and violent behavior.
Look, I’m no prude. If a filmmaker wants to shock, then he’d better have a reason.
Friedkin’s own "The Exorcist" used shock value in an appropriate manner, utilizing all the tools of cinema to thrust the viewer into an encounter with a demon. Likewise, Pasolini’s revolting "Salo," or the 120 Days of Sodom, was 100% shock with the ultimate goal of savaging Fascist rule. Killer Joe has no such aspirations.
Other SXSW Notes:
Films to watch for that I didn’t see, but got great buzz. "The Raid: Resurrection" is apparently a fantastic action flick out of Indonesia, centering on a special forces unit that must fight its way out of a drug lord’s building teeming with bad guys.
"Iron Sky" is a campy sci-fi film with the wacky premise that the Nazis left earth in 1945 and have been hiding out on the dark side of the moon plotting to return in 2018. The effects look fantastic for a $7 Million Euros budget, and some creative elements were internationally crowdsourced.
I was amazed that politics played no overt role in the festival. I didn’t hear a single person discuss politics the entire time – and this is Austin!
Tugg.com is an interesting new platform for film release that had a booth at the festival's trade show. Several exhibitor chains have signed with Tugg, because the model is designed to get more people into these theatres on Mondays through Thursdays, when occupancy drops to 20 percent of theatre capacity. Thus, if a theatre can bump a studio picture and take on some other film in exchange for selling more tickets, why wouldn’t they do it? The model may provide a venue for all kinds of films and ultimately be an alternative to traditional distribution.
Should you go to SXSW 2013? A sales agent agreed that any film that is good will get a release of some kind, so forking over hundreds of dollars to see them (and stand in line for an hour to do so) isn’t worth it. The social scene and networking may make it worthwhile to entertainment industry aspirants. Again, however, there were no film panels that offered info you couldn’t find elsewhere. Interactive panels were disappointingly useless, although a few stood out. Tech geeks will have a field day, however. If you are in branding, marketing, or data analytics, you’ll find plenty to interest you. If you are part of a start-up company, there are tons of resources and panels to take advantage of.
Finally, Austin is a quirky, fun, relaxed, and just plain weird city, and neither I nor its citizens would have it any other way.