Mike Saulters's blog

SXSW 2014: 'Wilderness of James' and 'Other Months'

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The Wilderness of JamesTired of the downtown scene after a weekend of expensive parking, crowds, and shuttle buses, I spent a day at the Alamo Drafthouse Village SXSatellite location. The satellite theaters have been a godsend for their convenience as well as the larger number of films the SXSW programmers can select because of them.

We at Slackerwood only wish the Village and Slaughter satellite locations screened films for the entire festival, instead of just through Thursday. (The Marchesa screened through Saturday, thankfully.)

The Wilderness of James

My first selection was a beautiful exploration of the teen psyche by first-time director Michael Johnson. The Wilderness of James stars Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) as James Charm, a young man obsessed with death. Living alone with his mother (Virginia Madsen) and bullied by the neighbor kids, he spends his time sketching dead animals and visiting his therapist (Danny DeVito, in one of the warmest roles he's ever taken). When he encounters and befriends Harmon (Evan Ross) on a late-night train ride, he is introduced to a new social world and begins to come out of his shell and conquer his emotional demons as he falls in love with Val (Isabelle Fuhrman).

Johnson's script is meditative, populated with likable and interesting characters, and intelligently written. His film is beautiful, and he treats his characters respectfully, writing believable dialogue in a story with a somewhat timeless quality. From the audience I felt a connection with the James character as the film brought back memories of adolescent fears and longings. As a thoughtful character study, The Wilderness of James is a pleasant experience.

SXSW Review: Premature

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Premature

Ferris Bueller meets Groundhog Day in the raunchy teen comedy Premature, from first-time writer/director Dan Beers. Rated R for language and sexual themes, Premature is unafraid to push the boundaries of good taste in the pursuit of laughter.

Beers has assembled a dynamic and talented cast including native Texans John Karna, Alan Tudyk and Carlson Young (look for interviews with these three next week). Karna stars as Rob Crabbe, an average teenager who wakes up on the most important day of his senior year lying in a wet spot on his bed. The events of the day, including his Georgetown college interview with Jack Roth (Tudyk) and tutoring session with sexy vixen Angela (Young), play out until he finds himself in bed with Angela, prematurely climaxes and immediately finds himself again in his bed at home, starting the day over.

Cursed to continue repeating the events of the day, Rob tries to work out a solution with the help of his best friends Stanley (Craig Roberts) and Gabrielle (Katie Findlay). Karna's charisma and naturally keen comic timing help to overlook weaker moments of dialogue where the teens sometimes don't feel like authentic teens as much as people delivering adult lines. Some lines are followed with a touch too much dead silence, as if edited to allow for insertion of a laugh track, but after such stumbles the pace always picks back up and delivers genuine laughs.

SXSW Review: The Infinite Man

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The Infinite ManTime-travel movies can be so difficult to execute that few filmmakers attempt them. Fewer still can claim success. Of those, I've reserved the highest praise, citing as the only time-travel movie that "gets it right" by being internally self-consistent, playing by its own rules while still being entertaining and managing to surprise the audience, for Nacho Vigolondo's Time Crimes. Until now. Many might ask about Rian Johnson's hit Looper, which is a good film, I agree, but which in the end breaks the rules.

Like Time Crimes, The Infinite Man is a micro-budget sci-fi story with a cast of only three characters. They are Dean (Josh McConville), his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall), and her ex Terry (Alex Dimitriades), who is obsessed with Lana and wants her back.

In addition to being a brilliant crackerjack scientist, Dean is a control freak who can't be satisfied with anything less than perfection. On the anniversary of their first, perfect date, Dean and Lana return to the same location as he attempts to recreate it in every detail. Unfortunately, there are too many variables out of his control, including the sudden appearance of Terry, intent on regaining the love of Lana. After the date falls apart, Dean spends a year creating a time machine and thus begins a loop returning to the fateful weekend as he seeks to put things right.

The ensuing encounters with himself, with Lana, and with Terry, shot from different locations and angles, play out hilariously as the truth of the story is slowly revealed not just to the audience, but to Dean himself. Writer/director Hugh Sullivan's clever script explores the unhealthier aspects of relationships such as self-doubt, co-dependence, obsessiveness, and controlling behaviors metaphorically through the actions of his characters.

SXSW Review: Creep

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Creep

Jason Blum must be one of the busiest men in Hollywood. With 36 credited projects already, and another 23 currently in production, Blum has proven himself not just hardworking, but also with a keen eye for horror films that use the simplest elements to reach the heart of what unsettles us and play on our innermost fears. Mark Duplass is a veteran of the mumblecore genre, which eschews narrative scripts and focuses on development of character and natural dialogue.

Put these guys together with writer/director Patrick Brice, and you get Creep, a microbudget hackle-raiser as scary as Paranormal Activity.

Brice stars as Aaron Franklin (one wonders if this is a tribute to Franklin Barbecue), who answers a Craigslist ad placed by Josef (Duplass) for a videographer to spend a day shooting his life. The creepiness begins immediately when Aaron arrives to find that nobody appears to be home, and the house and grounds have an ominous feel.

As Aaron prepares to leave, Josef silently appears in a startling reveal that sets the tone for the rest of the day. Josef, with his habit of appearing suddenly, often with an accompanying "rawr" or stomping thump, delights in keeping Aaron -- as well as the audience -- off-balance. Each scare is immediately explained away by the apologetic Josef, whose off-putting actions sound almost completely reasonable when taken in context.

During a Q&A with Brice and Duplass following the Creep premiere, they described the process in which the film evolved as they would shoot and edit scenes, show them to friends and then return to the rented cabin for additional shooting, bringing the script revision process off paper and into the camera. They populated the set with as many lamps as possible to reduce the need for extra lighting equipment, which also allowed for a natural, believable look for the handheld cinematography.

SXSW Review: The Dog

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The Dog

Drafthouse Films is building a strong slate of quality documentaries, and The Dog is a fine addition to that collection.

Filmmakers Allison Berg and Francois Keraudren, who brought their previous film Witches in Exile to SXSW in 2004, have completed an 11-year project to document the life of John Wojtowicz, aka "The Dog," who became famous in 1971 for robbing a Chase Manhattan bank in order to pay for gender reassignment surgery for his lover. The event served as inspiration for the 1975 Sidney Lumet film Dog Day Afternoon.

Beginning with his early years, The Dog covers a journey to Vietnam and a return to post-war Stonewall New York during the birth of the gay rights movement, revealing a fascinating character who refuses to play by any rules but his own. Wojtowicz is a force of nature, who describes himself as "an angel with horns," who does not drink, smoke, or gamble, reserving sex as his only vice.

Through Wojtowicz's eyes we see the Robin Hood story of the failed robbery attempt, the aftermath of his trial, his time in prison, and ultimate rejection by Liz Eden, his lover. Presented as a monster in the news media of the day and largely forgotten since, Wojtowicz presents a charismatic, likable figure in footage which covers his last years, and well before the end of the film, I found myself wishing I could meet this charming scoundrel.

The Dog is humorous, fascinating, and slightly tragic, especially in terms of the fallout for Wojtowicz's family. The loyalty of his mother as well as his former wives serves as evidence of his underlying goodness or of the cult of personality he would build around himself.

You can decide for yourself at the remaining screening tonight -- Thursday, March 13 at 9:30 pm at Alamo Village. If you miss it, The Dog was picked up by Drafthouse Films and is scheduled for an August 2014 release. I sat down with Berg and Keraudren for a few minutes after the film, so look for that conversation following the fest.

SXSW 2014: Starting with 'Space Station 76'

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 Cast and Crew of Space Station 76

My SXSW Film schedule has kept me moving around a lot more this year than usual. My first day involved a trip to Austin Convention Center for check-in, then to the Mondo Gallery for their Disney exhibition "Nothing's Impossible," back downtown for interviews with the cast of Premature, and then across the river to shoot red-carpet photos for Bad Words.

I thought it would be a good time to try out Car2Go, so I found one of their ubiquitous little cars and checked in for my very first trip. Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that when downtown during the fest, you can save a lot of money and shave off a lot of time by walking a couple of extra blocks instead of grabbing the nearest Car2Go. I managed to land in a one-way traffic hell as I was forced to circle the convention center garage in a trip that took over 30 minutes to move a single block. Otherwise, I found the Car2Go service was novel and would have been terrificly convenient under normal traffic circumstances.

My red carpet photos from Bad Words as well as those from "Nothing's Impossible" are already up on the Slackerwood Flickr along with additional sets from Joe (Nicolas Cage!) and the first film I saw, Space Station 76.

SXSW Film 2014: Managing Your (Crazy) Schedule

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SXSW Film logoHere are a few tips for managing your SXSW 2014 Film schedule:

  • Keep track of your schedule through SXSocial.
  • You can add films from the film conference schedule by clicking the star icon next to any title.
  • You can also click any title for an expanded description, and then click More Details for the full page, which includes an Add to my schedule button and alternate showtimes on the lower right.
  • After you have added selections to your schedule, the My Schedule link will show you your schedule day-by-day.
  • Start by scheduling films that only have one screening time.
  • After those are set, look for shows you want to see that are in the same theater that day. This will keep your travel needs to a minimum.
  • If you do schedule shows back to back that are in different locations, keep in mind the travel time between them. 
  • If two or more shows you want to see happen at the same time, add both to your schedule so you have an alternate in case your first pick is full.  

Review: 300: Rise of an Empire

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300: Rise of an Empire

Eight years after Zack Snyder revived the sword-and-sandal subgenre and inspired millions of men to revisit the gym with his adaptation of Frank Miller's 300, he has scripted a return to ancient Greece. Directed by Noam Murro (Smart People), the movie 300: Rise of an Empire is a self-indulgent video game fantasy at best.

The film opens with a recap of the events of 300 and an introduction to Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the new lead, who's head of the Greek army. The action proceeds to explain how Themistokles is not just the hero who led the Greeks to victory over Xerxes, but was himself responsible for the enmity held by Xerxes toward the Greeks.

Artemisia (Eva Green) is introduced as the leader of Xerxes' forces, and the two commence with a series of battles consisting of ships crashing into each other as warriors fight to the death on top of the sinking wrecks.

Here are the rules of Greek vs. Persian combat, as gleaned from 300: Rise of an Empire:

  • Rule 1: Like a friendly game of football, bad guys wear shirts, good guys are skins.
  • Rule 2: Every blow of every sword in every battle must be repeated in videogame style slo-mo.
  • Rule 3: Every scene with any of the Greek army present must have floating sparks constantly distracting from the action on the camera, as if from 10,000 campfires, even when the entire army is climbing wet out of the Mediterranean.
  • Rule 4: If it digitally bleeds, it digitally leads.
  • Rule 5: Nobody important dies without an extended death scene in which they deliver a monologue. Everyone else dies immediately upon the slightest injury.

Check Out the AFS ShortCase Lineup for SXSW 2014

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Whitewash

The Austin Film Society jury has chosen eight selections for the AFS ShortCase program, which annually presents to SXSW attendees a diverse mix of shorts created by AFS members. The 2014 jury included Austin filmmaker Clay Liford (Wuss), AFS programmer Lars Nilsen and Slackerwood contributor Debbie Cerda.

The ShortCase screening will take place during the first weekend of the fest, Saturday March 8 at 2 pm at the Marchesa. (Add the screening to your schedule here.) It's free and open to the public even if you don't have a SXSW badge or wristband -- but get there early, because last year this event filled up fast and a number of people were turned away.

The short features and documentaries include:

Digging for the Water (Joshua Riehl) -- In the hilltop village of Creve, Haiti residents have no electricity or running water. Their only supply, which they must carry by hand from a neighboring village, is contaminated with bacteria. Volunteers from the organization Mountain of Hope and The University of Texas at Austin arrange to help drill a well for the village.

Review: Non-Stop

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Non-Stop

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax) has worked with Liam Neeson previously on the movie Unknown, but there is another clear reason Neeson was cast for the role of alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks. The actor has the talent and star power to elevate an otherwise unremarkable, movie-of-the-week script like Non-Stop into a moneymaker with wings. 

The story, penned by a team whose credits include TV's Big Brother and WWE/WrestleMania, lands Neeson in the role of Bill Marks, an air marshal on a transatlantic flight. He's confronted with text messages from an anonymous villain who promises to kill someone on the flight unless the exorbitant sum of $150 million is wired into an account within an unlikely time limit of 20 minutes. With the clock ticking and no clues to help him, he must reveal the hijacker even as the villain's complex plan unfolds to frame him for the deed.

The ensuing tense whodunit occupies the audience with guessing games, attempting to lead them astray with characters that play on ethnic stereotypes and dirty looks as Marks and his allies Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) and Nancy (Michelle Dockery) attempt to expose the culprit.

As the flight's body count increases, so does Marks' level of stress, until Neeson is enraged, throwing passengers around like rag dolls and progressing only in cementing his image as a hijacker, already being painted in the media on the ground.

Non-Stop is best enjoyed by those who don't pick apart a script and can allow themselves to be caught up in the tense situation. Collet-Serra has a few tricks to keep the pace moving, including some impressive hand-to-hand choreography within the confines of the plane's lavatory. These tricks make for an enjoyable film, in spite of the descent into monologues as the clock is ticking and swift loss of direction when the hijacker is finally revealed.

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