This year’s South by SouthWest (SXSW) Film Festival wrapped up this weekend, marred by a horrifying drunk driving accident earlier in the week but continuing for a few days beyond that as the music part of the festival kicked off.
For whatever reason, this didn’t seem like a year with any sort of real breakout films like last year’s Short Term 12, but I also didn’t see nearly as many movies at the festival as I would have liked and missed a number of movies I definitely wanted to see like David Gordon Green’s Joe and Space Station 76, starring Patrick Wilson and Liv Tyler. Of course, it would have been nice to have seen some of this year’s award winners as well, but I only caught one of those.
While I’m not going to do the normal “Best of the Fest” list because I’m not sure I saw enough movies I really loved to do one, I basically will write a little something about every movie I saw either before or during SXSW and what I thought of them. Many of them already have distribution and will be released over the next few months, but a few of them are still looking. Just to make things a little more fun, we’ll go from the best movie I saw to the worst, though really, I didn’t see that many bad movies either.
My absolutely favorite movie premiering at this year’s SXSW was in fact the Opening Night movie, Jon Favreau’s Chef, a warm and funny character piece in which Favreau plays a popular chef who loses his job in a way that makes him unhireable at other restaurants. After months without a job, he decides to go down to Miami with his ex-wife in order to reconnect with his son and check out a food truck being offered by her ex-husband, played by Robert Downey Jr. Although Downey’s appearance is little more than a one-scene cameo really, Favreau’s surrounded himself with a great cast including John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara as his ex-wife. Maybe because it’s because I was once a cook myself and I know how well Favreau got the dynamics of a working kitchen, but I was really able to connect to this movie despite not having a son myself. I just really enjoyed this movie thoroughly and left the theater wanting to see the movie again, which is always a sign that a filmmaker has succeeded.
I haven’t had a chance to review Richard Linklater’s Boyhood yet, but it’s a movie I’ve been waiting to see for 12 years because that’s how long it’s taken for Linklater to film and finish it. The general conceit is that it follows a young boy named Mason from the age of six to 18, played by Ellar Coltrane, and Linklater essentially went back once a year to shoot footage for the movie which he then edited together to create what is literally a slice-of-life film. Linklater’s frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke plays the boy’s estranged father and Patricia Arquette plays his single mother, who goes through a string of drunken husbands. It’s a long movie at nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes and not every sequence in the life of this boy and his family is that interesting, especially as he becomes a teenager and spends more time away from his family, but overall, as a portrait of someone’s life, it’s an engaging film that keeps you invested in seeing where things go as it cuts forward year-by-year. I’m not sure the movie can work as well on repeat viewings, but it’s another fantastic tour de force by Linklater as a filmmaker following last year’s Before Midnight.
One of the movies I was most excited about seeing at SXSW was Soul Boys of the Western World, a documentary by director George Hencken about 80s New Wave and fashion icons Spandau Ballet, who are still best known in the States for their single “True.” What makes the movie interesting is that most Americans won’t know much about the member’s working class past and how pivotal they were in the early days of New Wave. Nor will they have much of an idea what they’d been up to in the almost 30 years since they last played in the States, since most of them were acting or appearing on television while also dealing with acrimony from a 90s royalty dispute. They reunited in 2009 to great success and they definitely are having a comeback, and this terrific doc does a great job showing how the band got where they are. It should be entertaining even for those who aren’t as big a fan of the band’s music as I am.
One of the nicer surprises of the fest was the Spanish relationship drama 10,000 Km. (Long Distance), written and directed by Carlos Marques-Marcet. We meet Alex and Sergi, played by Natalia Tena and David Verdaguer, as they’re having sex in their Barcelona apartment, trying to get pregnant after seven years together. Soon, she learns that she has been hired to move to Los Angeles for a year to take on a photography project, which turns their playful post-lovemaking session into something more tense. She takes the job and they try to make it work by communicating via Skype. At first, that central conceit for the movie, where we only see one of the two actors “in the flesh,” seems like it could get boring, but spending just those fifteen minutes with the couple at the beginning does a lot to help the rest of the movie work. The script is very good and the two actors do an excellent job making the relationship and situation more credible. You’re already invested in their relationship and curious to see where things go as he starts getting jealous about how much fun she’s having in California without him, but it’s just a solid character drama that rightfully received an award for its acting.
It’s becoming fairly common for studios to bring their movies at SXSW to get word-of-mouth going for their theatrical release and that was the case with Jason Bateman’s directorial debut Bad Words, which opened this past Friday. I enjoyed the film’s combination of dark and snarky humor and the way it wraps up with a last act that brings in some much-needed warmth. You can learn more about it at the links below, but it gives me high hopes for Bateman’s future directorial efforts.
Australian films showed the innovative creativity coming from that continent with two genre films, one from a new filmmaker, the other from a familiar face and name. Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man is a witty romantic comedy using time travel as a plot device in a way that’s clever but also one that gets confusing pretty fast if you’re not taking copious notes. Essentially, it stars Josh McConville as Dean, a scientist who tries to make up for a disastrous anniversary vacation with his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall) by creating a time travel machine that allows him to go back in time and fix everything. Making things difficult is her former boyfriend Terry played by Alex Dimitriades in a very funny role. The movie successfully mixes “Groundhogs Day” with “Back to the Future” as Dean and Lana keep going back in time and inadvertently running into their other selves and things just start piling on top of each other so that few will be able to keep track of which Dean or Lana are which. Still, fans of Shane Carruth’s Primer should appreciate the complexity of the storytelling in Sullivan’s film and it was ultimately an enjoyable film.
Saw and Insidious co-creator Leigh Whannell returned to his Melbourne roots to co-write and co-star in The Mule, from his long-time friend Angus Sampson, who plays the title character, a local football hero named Ray Jenkins convinced by his friend Gavin (Whannell) to smuggle drugs inside his body for a local drug kingpin. It takes a little time for the movie to get going as Sampson is not the most charismatic actor, but the cast they’ve assembled around them, particularly Hugo Weaving and Ewen Leslie as the main detectives in charge of getting Ray to give up the goods inside him, really bring a lot to the story. The general premise leads to a number of truly unsettling scenes as one might expect, but things get more interesting the longer Ray holds out and as we see a number of peripheral characters trying to get to him.
The biggest studio premiere at SXSW was Universal Pictures’ comedy Neighbors, shown as a “work in progress.” It’s the latest from Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), teaming him with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg for a high concept comedy about a couple of new parents (Rogen and Rose Byrne) who have to contend with the frathouse that moves in next door, run by Zac Efron and David Franco. You can read my thoughts on the movie in my review, but I generally liked the movie with some reservations, mainly about how it’s hard to mix the two very different types of humor the movie is trying to combine. I generally was more interested in the idea of a couple trying to raise a baby, but most of the time the movie would prefer to be “Animal House” and since I’ve seen “Animal House” (a true comedy classic), there’s little this really adds to the frathouse comedy genre. But it is very funny and often goes way beyond good taste, so it does have that going for it.
Michael Peña, an actor who has proven himself both as a comedic actor and a dramatic one, plays the title role of Cesar Chavez, the Civil Rights activist who helped unionize Mexican migrant farm workers in the directorial debut by Mexican actor Diego Luna. Chavez is an interesting character who doesn’t get as much recognition as the likes of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy or other defenders of Civil Rights and Peña really plays him beautifully, and America Ferrera also gives a terrific performance as his wife, but the others around them just aren’t as strong, such as John Malkovich as one of many “bad white people” who just play things a little too bad. I’m a fan of Rosario Dawson, but she’s really been given somewhat of a nothing role compared to Ferrera, which is a shame and as far as the filmmaking, I was somewhat bothered by Luna’s choices like the handheld camerawork. But overall, it’s a worthwhile and well-told story with Pena really holding it together, and it’s hard to say too many bad things because there are clearly good intentions in getting Chavez’s story and message out to younger people. (I may still try to write a full review of the movie and hope to speak with Luna and Peña as well.)
Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughn–who wrote the book and screenplay for The Men Who Stare at Goats, respectively–is an interesting tribute to an odd cult figure from the 80s British music scene, Frank Sidebottom. The story is told through the eyes of Domhnall Gleeson (About Time) as a young wannabe songwriter from a seaside town who gets a gig playing with an odd American band in his city. Although Sidebottom’s height of fame was in the late 80s, Ronson–who based this story on his own days playing keyboards with Sidebottom’s band–moves the story into the present day so that he can use social media like Twitter and YouTube as part of the story. The film’s a bit erratic as we watch Gleeson’s character settle into the crazy lifestyle of Frank and his band, which includes the absolutely insane Clara, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. The movie’s mainly of interest due to the performance by Michael Fassbender that requires him to wear a giant plaster helmet for the majority of the film yet still giving the character a strong personality that convinces all these musicians to follow him blindly. John eventually tries to move up the ranks and have more power within the band leading to a showcase at SXSW, but it just feels like some things work better than others.
I’m a big fan of EDM (Electronic dance music) so the chance to discover Swedish House Mafia, a group I wasn’t as familiar with, in Christian Larson’s doc Leave the World Behind was certainly intriguing. That said, within the first few minutes of the movie, you learn that SHM have already broken up and are preparing for a worldwide farewell tour. As it happens, I dug the group’s music and the lightshow they put on for their performances is absolutely amazing, but there’s something about watching these mopey Swedish guys complaining while they’re probably raking in millions from their final tour that just rubbed me the wrong way. Ultimately, the excerpts from their live shows are the best part of the movie, but even that’s marred by the fact it feels like one big act where they’re trying to make the fans think they still get along when they clearly don’t. There have been better docs about the end of a band (such as “Shut Up and Play the Hits”) and this could have been a more interesting doc if it was made before the band’s break-up.
Another doc that interested me from its description was Charlie Paul’s For No Good Reason, which took an in-depth look at the art and career of British artist Ralph Steadman, best known for illustrating the novels and journalistic efforts of Hunter S. Thompson. Steadman’s art is still amazing to behold because it’s so dark and edgy and unlike anything else out there. We get a pretty in-depth look into how Steadman creates his art, the problem being that for whatever reason, Paul decided to recruit Johnny Depp to kind of show up at Steadman’s studio and be our eyes into that world. Depp basically spends his time kissing Steadman’s ass and really adding very little to the movie, then on top of that, some of the musical choices just don’t work either even though the opening credit sequence proudly proclaims everyone who contributed music to the soundtrack. The movie is worthwhile for the vast collection of Steadman’s art on display, but it’s not the best doc we’ve seen due to those decisions.
Robert Duvall stars in A Night in Old Mexico (Phase 4 Films), a fairly straight-ahead Texas-centric road movie directed by Emilio Aragon, in which he plays rancher Red Bovie, who goes on the road with a young man (Jeremy Irvine) after his ranch is taken away from him. While Duvall always brings his A-game to every role he plays, Irvine’s performance just isn’t on the same par and I was more impressed by Angie Cepeda’s performance as a bar singer they meet on the way. Written by “Lonesome Dove” writer William Wittliff, the script’s been around for over three decades apparently and it kind of feels like that, since the story isn’t particularly unique or original enough to set itself apart and that really holds the movie back from being something particularly memorable.
The quirky New Zealand comedy Eagle vs. Shark, which introduced the few people who saw it to “Flight of the Conchords” star Jemaine Clement and director Taika Waititi, was one of my favorite movies of that year, so to see them reteam for What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about vampires living as roommates, certainly appealed to me. With a lot of different vampire tropes in play, the movie has a number of funny jokes though a lot of the humor goes for the fairly obvious and it’s not nearly as clever or quirky as I expect from the Kiwi duo. I also generally hated the use of mockumentary format and the shaky camerawork used even if there were some impressive visual FX thrown into the mix despite the fairly low budget.
I already reviewed Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ continuation of the cancelled CW show from the mid-00s, but its premiere at SXSW helped to generate more excitement for the limited release of the movie this past Friday, as there are clearly a lot of the fans of the show who have been dying to see more of the character. Having not seen the show, I was not one of them and the movie just felt like an extended version of what I felt the television show would be like, and the movie made it obvious how much better Kristen Bell and Krysten Ritter are as actors compared to the rest of the cast, who haven’t done as much since the original show.
Anja Marquardt’s She’s Lost Control got into a number of festivals including Berlinale and Lincoln Center’s upcoming New Directors/New Films, and I was intrigued by the premise of Brooke Bloom playing a New York sex surrogate who gets in a bit over her head with a new client, played by Marc Menchaca. For the most part, this is another typical indie that uses cinema verité to follow Bloom’s character Ronah in her day-to-day life helping troubled men get over their sexual proclivities. Despite the similar occupation, this is no The Sessions, and while Menchaca’s performance is quite strong, some of the things going in Ronah’s everyday life, such as her dealing with plumbing issues in her apartment, just aren’t very interesting. The movie just doesn’t pay off (especially with that title) after spending so much time having the viewer watch what is a fairly mundane life other than the nudity and sex that comes with her job, which isn’t really enough to maintain a movie. As a character piece, this doesn’t compare to the aforementioned Long Distance even if the performances are the strongest aspect of it.
Probably the most vexing of the movies I saw at this year’s SXSW was Predestination, the new one from the Brothers Spierig (Daybreakers) starring Ethan Hawke (him again!), another time travel movie, this one a thriller based on Robert A. Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” promising some intriguing mind-bending plot twists that honestly will pretty much divide audiences down the middle whether they work or not. I’m not going to give them away, of course, but we’re introduced to the idea of Hawke’s character being sent back in time to the 70s to take down a bomber who will kill thousands in New York, but instead he ends up in a bar talking to an androgynous “man” in a bar, played by Sarah Snook. And then we get a half-hour of flashback exposition as she tells her story, completely killing any momentum as far as the overall story. And then we return to Hawke’s mission and get a bit of time travel escapades and then we get a big twist and as we scratch our heads trying to figure out how that one might make sense, it all leads up to a bigger twist, one that’s likely to lose anyone who has patiently given the movie a chance thus far. Sure, some people might like this kind of thing, and I’m a fan of time travel movies myself, but this one just goes a little too far off the beaten path in dealing with things like sexual identity, and it just won’t be very accessible to mainstream audiences.
That’s pretty much it for our coverage of the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, although hopefully some of the movies that played there and were honored with awards will make their way to theaters in the upcoming year or next.