By Jacob Mertens.
I have become convinced that I bring bad weather with me to Austin. For the last three years I have attended the SXSW Film Festival, and for the last three years it has rained on me. In one absurd moment in 2012, I rode a friend’s bike into downtown Austin during a severe thunderstorm, wearing two soaked through sweaters and listening to Wu-Tang Clan on my iPod, mouthing the words, feeling convinced I was the most absurd member of press to ever attend a film festival. Naturally, this year I forgot all my former troubles and thought I could avoid the bad favor of the weather gods. Early on in the festival week, my prospects were promising: clouds hung gray and foreboding, sure, but they would not release a drop of rain. That is, not until the third day. I left the theater at midnight, feeling smug in my victory over unseen forces, only to find the fair city of Austin submerged in water. Deflated and alone, I stomped my way through a biblical downpour wondering where all the cab drivers in the city had gone to.
If the old adage of having to suffer for what you love plays true, then at least SXSW 2013 delivers on its end of the deal. This year, the festival lineup shines just as bright as ever, gray clouds or no, and I find it impossible to stay angry at the weather gods for long. No, truly I must concede. Give me 6th street’s jazz musicians riffing on “Pumped Up Kicks” and tech geeks fluttering across the convention center with eyes glued to their smart phones. Give me midnight screenings of campy horror films and food trucks peddling breakfast tacos. Give me James Franco uttering “Spring Break Forever” into a microphone, all to the jubilation of a sold out Paramount Theater. SXSW, I will take you unconditionally, and the next time it rains I will simply channel my inner Gene Kelly.
All Hail the Headliners
For what would become a brilliant event, SXSW 2013 kicked off with a worrisome start. The official opening night picture, Don
Scardino’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, frankly had no business being at a film festival beyond shamelessly selling badges. The film follows the burgeoning career of magicians Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), who find fame and success only to watch it slip from their fingers, eclipsed by the grotesque stunts of rival magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). Without committing more words than the film deserves, it can simply be said that Wonderstone underwhelms as a toothless comedy. The film has no bite, and all its attempts at humor bear the signature of a negligent rehashing of stale comedic tropes. Furthermore, the film shows a complete misunderstanding of casting. Burt Wonderstone has let fame turn him into a pompous, womanizing caricature, and perhaps in the right hands this role could have been convincing. And yet, Carell cannot be believed as the character because he has built up his acting career as a warmhearted buffoon. All in all, after opening last year with the stellar The Cabin in the Woods (2012), SXSW takes a severe step back and trades in their opening film slot for star power and little else.
Thankfully, a more appropriate opening film screened a couple short hours after The Incredible Burt Wonderstone drew its curtains. Taking place in a cabin in the woods, much like the aforementioned Drew Goddard horror flick, Evil Dead offers the glorious return of the Necronomicon: still bound in human flesh, still immune to fire, and still waiting to unleash hell on unsuspecting teenagers. The series reboot suffers a terrible opening act of exposition, but clearly excels in its horror genre staples. Directed by Fede Alvarez, Evil Dead takes great creative liberties in generating suspense, and allowing the tension of a scene to effortlessly evolve into screaming terror and unrelenting gore. The characters may feel superficial, but if the audience cared more about them the film would quickly become an act of cruelty. As it stands, each character remains just plausible enough to make you cringe when they hack of their hand with a bone saw or attempt to peel their face off with the broken shards of a mirror. The film is irreverent, exciting, and most importantly a lot of fun to watch with a big crowd. In other words, it is the perfect film for this festival.
If SXSW only sought familiar territory with its programming, Evil Dead could have been the shining crown of headliners. However, Harmony Korine’s North American premiere of Spring Breakers easily stole away with that distinction. Making excellent use of a new collaboration with cinematographer Benoît Debie of Irreversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009) fame, Korine crafts the lurid and often lyrical narrative of four girls letting loose on spring vacation. While the film runs the constant danger of being misunderstood, Korine is careful to embrace the hedonism of his film’s spring break subculture while simultaneously offering critical commentary on it. Ultimately, Spring Breakers can be considered a meditation on excess, breaking ground with its depiction of society’s idolization of violence and material wealth. That said, the director’s penchant for bizarre narrative diversions give the film some of its most memorable moments. Most notably, James Franco’s white rapper turned drug dealer Alien plays a Brittany Spears ballad on his piano as “his girls,” dressed in pink bikinis and ski masks, totting machine guns like cute accessories, dance around him and harmonize on the refrain. Filmmaking cannot get more sublime than that.
The War of the Words
When writing screenplays you must have a keen ear for dialogue, otherwise your film will move with dead feet. Of course, when in doubt it does not hurt to enlist the help of some assured source material. Joss Whedon’s modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing has picked up momentum after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, and now finds the director returning to SXSW. Much Ado takes place in the director’s own house, and spins the tale of a love-hate relationship between the quick tongued and scornful Beatrice (Amy Acker) and the pompous but agile minded Benedick (Alexis Denisof). Whedon sets up this surprisingly deft retelling of the bard’s comedy with a cast handpicked from former projects, primarily showcasing his well suited pair of contentious leads. Meanwhile, a sense of playful guile pervades each scene, a few revisionist tweaks find Much Ado much more lascivious than last remembered, and actors snap off each line of dialogue with the conviction of aged theater veterans. Shot in black and white within the confines of a mansion, Much Ado has an abundance of class and style, and gives the audience a good reason to revisit the story.
Ironically, another film that impressed with its back and forth banter never had a fully written script to begin with. Joe Swangberg created Drinking Buddies as part of a tradition of largely improvised films, attempting to hone in on an honest tenor of conversation. The film follows the friendship of two co-workers, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), who both find themselves in committed relationships with other people. And yet, there is a constant, nagging feeling that the two might belong together. By foregoing a written script, the conversations in Drinking Buddies easily evolve into single pivotal argument between Kate and Luke. The two have ignored their attraction to each other, but at a certain point the tension between them breaks and they must either act on their impulses or not. Thankfully, the other relationships in the film, particularly Luke’s relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick), do not feel like side notes that merely serve as obstacles between Luke and Kate’s potential happiness. Instead, Drinking Buddies takes a step back and studies how these characters might idolize what they do not have and neglect what they do. The film might begin as an offbeat romantic comedy, but it plays out as an understated portrait of young love.
Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 goes yet another route, as characters struggle to examine the conflict lying beneath words exchanged. Taking place in a facility that offers temporary housing to displaced youths, the drama delicately illustrates the loss of innocence and the attempt to piece a life together afterward. Centered on a breakout performance by Brie Larson, who plays a staff supervisor named Grace, each conversation in the film gives the impression that the adults are walking through minefields. This feeling of caution culminates in a young girl’s illustrated story of a squid, who slowly lets a shark eat each of her eight legs in the name of friendship. As a twisted reimagining of The Giving Tree, this brief tale deeply resonates with Grace, who cries at its conclusion: namely, the shark devours what is left of the octopus and swims away. Intuitively, Grace reads beneath the scrawled story lines and sees that the girl has been abused by her father. This moment, both gentle and surprisingly effecting, could go on to characterize the entire film.
Up Close and Personal: Documentaries at SXSW
SXSW 2013 has no shortage of personal narratives, but this year the documentaries proved particularly moving, each sharing intimate stories with perfect filmgoing strangers. In the case of Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed, the subject was one close to the director’s heart. In the film, Berliner interviews family member Edwin Honig, naturally a first cousin once removed, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Having shared an affinity with Edwin before the disease set in, Berliner returns with his camera looking for signs of the man’s former self. However, Edwin’s mind seems more a cage these days, one that only shows the odd glimpse of his former towering intellect as a poet and a scholar. As Berliner maps Edwin’s descent into a pale-minded man prone to childish fits and yet somehow enraptured by the sight of leaves rustling in the wind, he admits his own fear that he may follow in Edwin’s path. The fear is an understandable one, and little about Berliner’s film can soothe it. Instead, Alzheimer’s disease is depicted as it should be: a kind of torture that one can only vaguely be aware of. Still, First Cousin leaves viewers with the elegant notion that regardless of how we leave this world, our passing can hold the meaning of a full life lived.
Treading more friendly waters, Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet from Stardom details the plight of backup singers deserving a chance at the spotlight and rarely being able to seize it. The film largely focuses on the rise of black, soul-infused backup singers in the 1960s, and carries through to an age in which this kind of singing has become a lost art. Neville’s film benefits from subject material that any music-loving audience can relate to, but that has similarly never had a chance in the sun before now. Indeed, some of these stories feel like moments of much needed catharsis that have been building up for decades. One woman was offered a chance at a single only to have her song stolen away by the producer, who gave an established band the credit and had them lip-sync the words. Another woman sings soul with such power and subtle sweetness, it could make Aretha Franklin give up the floor to her. However, a music insider reminds the audience that Aretha came first, and recording studios felt there could be only one “great” soul singer to market at a time. However, the film’s greatest gift lies in its ability to illuminate what these backup singers gave to a song. In an arresting sequence, the film plays the backup vocals on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, as the singer in question tells the audience that she was pulled out of bed by the producer, sometime in the ungodly hours of morning, and showed up to sing the fabled chorus with her hair still in curlers. As her voice soars, free of instrumentation and Mick Jagger’s graveled duet, the scene cannot help but give chills.
Finally, in Petra Costa’s documentary Elena, the director tells the painful story of her sister Elena, whose life was cut short by suicide, and of her own life living under the shadow of Elena’s ghost. The film combines stock VHS footage of Elena, taken when Petra was a child, and a combination of lyrical footage and informal interviews. All these threads are tied together by Petra’s doleful voiceover, which at its best accentuates her own grief as a tangible conflict in the film. Petra has followed her sister’s footsteps to study theater in New York, acting against the wishes of her family, and now feels the weight of her sister’s tragic life always present in her own. However, if Petra’s woeful words paint an image of despair, by the end her gift at poetry helps to soothe these troubled feelings. In her closing monologue, Petra tells her audience that “little by little the pain turns to water, becomes memory,” and as she spins in circles in the middle of an empty street crossing in New York City, her relief becomes tangible as well.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.