Jette Kernion's blog
Updated April 7, 2015.
Slackerwood was all over the SXSW Film Festival this year. Here's the list of all our guides, features, interviews, reviews and photos.
White supremacists move to a very small North Dakota town and start buying property, encouraging their friends to do the same so they can eventually "take over" the town. You can picture the resulting documentary -- the interviews with town members, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the tension about how this potentially explosive situation will end. But you might not predict that Welcome to Leith would skillfully show you that the situation is not as clear cut as it sounds, and show the poisonous side effects of not just hate, but fear.
The film opens with an ominous 911 call -- a woman in Leith believes herself to be in peril from men roaming the area with guns. But how did matters get to that point? Welcome to Leith backtracks to show us. It begins when Craig Cobb, whom the SPLC calls "one of the top ten white supremicists in America," buys property in the town of Leith -- three miles, 24 residents, one bar. Cobb is part of a group called the Creators and has a history of publishing personal identifiable information about people who cross him ("doxxing" before that was even a word).
After Cobb buys property in Leith -- at an unbelievably low cost -- he encourages other white supremacist group leaders to buy land there and join him, with a goal of taking over the town entirely. He donates a tract of land to Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance. You can guess what the neighbors think -- especially the town's lone African-American resident, whom Cobb approaches about selling land. Imagine how you'd feel to see a swastika painted on a sign on your neighbor's property. The town leaders decide to change water and sewer ordinances in a way that could possibly drive the unwanted new residents out of town again.
Here we have a pair of newcomers to Southern California, watching their little boy on the playground. Oh look, he's sharing his gummy worms with another boy. Oh look, here comes the boy's dad, fussing about the non-organic ingredients in the gummy worms. And just when you think this is going to turn into another Carnage, it turns out the dad is kidding, the atmosphere lightens, and everyone becomes friends ... for the moment.
After the above prologue, The Overnight sticks to its title, set primarily at a dinner party. And as the evening slowly unravels, the tension builds quite effectively and it's difficult to tell what this movie is and where it's going. It's funny, but is it ultimately a comedy? Will it be a dark comedy with a body count? Some kind of inversion on a home invasion film? Eventually you give up wondering and accept that you won't be able to relax until the movie ends.
Emily (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Adam Scott), eager to make friends in their new neighborhood, accept a dinner invitation from Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) and Charlotte (Judith Godrèche) after meeting on the aforementioned playground. The little boys are fast friends, but Emily and Alex are more hesitant about a couple that seems a little bit ... off. Kurt wants to show off Charlotte's acting talent by showing a video clip that only enhances the awkward feelings in the air. Kurt shows Alex his studio, with art that is ... unexpected. Charlotte takes Emily on an errand that is ... entirely unexpected. If I keep trying to describe the atmosphere, I'll run out of ellipses.
Oh my god, Andrew Bujalski has sold out. The filmmaker with a reputation for populating his indies with non-actors has brought us a film that stars, yes, stars Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders. I don't think I saw a single indie filmmaker in the cast. And it kind of has a plot! And who knows how much money it cost -- he didn't even need to crowdfund. I mean, really, total sellout.
Except that's not the case at all. Results is very much of a piece with Bujalski's previous films, from Mutual Appreciation to Computer Chess. The Austin writer-director's insightfulness about the minutiae of everyday relationships is front and center. The "stars" play characters who work at a gym -- naturally portraying beautiful people without upsetting the balance of the cast.
Danny (Kevin Corrigan) first appears onscreen after his wife locks him out of their New York apartment. Shortly thereafter, we encounter him in an Austin gym, determined to get into shape for reasons he cannot clearly articulate to the gym's owner, Trevor (Pearce). Trevor assigns Kat (Smulders), a demanding and no-nonsense trainer, to work with Danny at his home. It's obvious Danny would like Kat in his life for more than just teaching him ab exercises, though.
Austin filmmaker Bob Byington likes to set his films in an environment many of us recognize and understand: the featureless, tidy, chain-populated world of the lower-rent suburbs. His characters often work thankless jobs that actually exist in the real world, often in food service. They live in dumpy rentals, they drive cheap or decrepit cars. Apart from the occasional smartphone or computer, the movies could be set in any time in the past few decades and in any American suburb or small city.
And it's within these almost generic settings that Byington brings us movies about people (young men, generally) who change their lives in small but significant ways -- unexpected events leading to improbable effects. It's a slightly twisted world, but ultimately grounded by mundane surroundings.
In Byington's latest movie, 7 Chinese Brothers, slacker Larry (Jason Schwartzman) is fired from a Buca di Beppo after his bosses catch him enjoying the restaurant's booze. They accuse him of hoarding tips as well, although we never find out whether this is actually true.
With the slightest excuse, I can go on and on about how Some Like It Hot is truly the perfect comedy if not the perfect movie. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's script has a perfect symmetry -- every setup is paid off, every gag is repeated bigger, better and often with a kind of lyricism ("we have the same type blood, type O"). The timing of the maracas scene is breathtakingly brilliant. People like to gossip about director Wilder's difficulty in working with Marilyn Monroe but you see none of that onscreen. Most importantly, I've seen the movie countless times but it's still funny, every single time.
Recently I've been interested in -- and vastly entertained by -- comedies that aren't perfect, and that don't quite work for one reason or another. The thin, ridiculous plot is just an excuse for strings and strings of gags. You can see the joins where the movie was recut for one reason or another. Casting choices threw the movie out of balance. You get the idea. And yet they are still marvelous in many ways.
For example, a few years after Some Like It Hot, Wilder directed Kiss Me, Stupid, a film that provided a sharp and smutty contrast to the pastel-colored "sophisticated comedies" of the time. Instead of Rock Hudson and Doris Day flirting on gorgeous sets, you get Ray Walston and Kim Novak in harsh black-and-white, bargaining in a quote-roadhouse-unquote.
Just in time to be entirely irrelevant in terms of Oscar predictions, the Slackerwood contributors have voted on their top ten 2014 films. I think our picks are much better than the ones the Academy nominated for Best Picture (they didn't even pick ten this year, did they).
Our criteria were very laid-back -- it is called Slackerwood, after all. Eligible films included movies released in Austin in 2014 and movies that had a limited release for awards purposes in 2014. Ten contributors (including myself) each submitted a top ten list, and I tallied up the votes. No, I did not stuff the ballot box, as you can see by the absence of Snowpiercer on the list.
The first and second movies on this list were one point away from one another in the final tally. And of the ten films on the list, only two had votes from five contributors -- the first and fourth. Everything else had four or fewer votes. The list includes one movie shot in Austin, one movie directed by a former Texan, and one movie co-starring/produced by a former Austinite. Here we go:
10. Nightcrawler (pictured at top)
"... a slick thriller, even though it plays out like a gritty B-movie. ... The world of Nightcrawler is not exactly firmly grounded in reality, but it takes a slightly elevated, pitch-black look at a world where having questionable morality is celebrated as long as it increases the bottom line." -- Matt Shiverdecker (full review)
My criteria for movies to include in "best of the year" lists are very loose, as compared to various critics' organizations and other film-awards groups. For example, I would never disqualify Birdman from Best Score because it includes music from other composers. (Otherwise I'd never be able to qualify my all-time favorite score, from The Bad News Bears, but I digress.) The point is to present an interesting list of notable movies I saw in/around 2014, not to nitpick.
So my "notable films of 2014" list includes movies that were released in 2014, no matter when I saw them, as well as movies I saw in 2014 even if they haven't had a theatrical release. And, you know, whatever the hell else I want. If I'd done a 2013 list I probably would have topped it with A New Leaf (1971) because that was by far the best movie I saw that year. (It's on Amazon Prime and Blu-ray. It's funnier than anything else I'll mention in this article. Go watch it now.)
I planned to only include a few films because I never feel constrained by "top ten" or other numbers, but excellent and enjoyable movies kept popping onto the list. These are sort of in order -- my favorite is the one at the top -- but once we get past that, I can't really quibble about whether this one is better than that one. I'd recommend every one of them, is the point.
Have you been to the "The Making of Gone with the Wind" exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center yet? Whatever your opinion of the film, it is truly amazing. I've been once and I feel like I caught about 60 percent of it before my feet gave out -- I need to go back again. The exhibit runs through Jan. 4, and admission is free (although parking near UT probably won't be), so take a long lunch break and check it out. Your mom's visiting for Christmas vacation? Bring her there for a treat.
Tomorrow night (Wednesday, Nov. 19) at 7 pm, head over to HRC to hear author and film critic Molly Haskell discuss her book Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited. It focuses on both the novel and the movie. Haskell is probably best known for her book on women in film, From Reverence to Rape. I've heard her speak before and can't recommend it enough. If you can't make it to the HRC, a live webcast will be available.
I've read Frankly, My Dear and enjoyed it very much -- in fact, I bought the book at HRC after visiting the exhibit. I've read maybe a half-dozen books over the years about Gone with the Wind, because back in high school I was a huge raving fan of the novel. I'm less so now -- over the years the racism has bugged me more and more, and I've always felt Scarlett is essentially an overgrown teenager. But somewhere around here I believe I even have a book of producer David O. Selznick's infamous memos (he would have loooved social media and email), many of which concerned his great 1939 epic film. So I went into the exhibit, and Haskell's book, with plenty of background information.
I grew up in the greater New Orleans area, I have minors in political science and history from LSU ... I even worked in the Louisiana State Capitol for awhile. But it wasn't until I saw 61 Bullets at Austin Film Festival that I heard a viable alternative theory about Huey Long's death. (Sure, I heard speculation, but I gave it as much credence as alternate Kennedy assassination theories.) 61 Bullets not only presents the case for this theory compellingly, but it brings in the personal -- the family of Dr. Carl Weiss, accused of assassinating then-Senator Long.
For those of you who haven't had to learn this for a pop quiz, who haven't poked their fingers in the bulletholes in the State Capitol wall, here's the background: In 1935, former La. Gov. Huey Long was shot in the State Capitol. The story we learned is that Weiss leaped out from behind a pillar and started shooting. Long's bodyguards peppered Weiss's body with 61 bullets (thus the documentary's title), and rushed Long to the hospital, but he died several days later. The rationale generally provided for why Weiss did it is that he was mentally unhinged, and perhaps had a beef with Long over Weiss's father-in-law possibly losing a judgeship.
However, many of Weiss's relatives have never quite accepted this theory, it seems. They believe the political ambitions of the Long family (which indeed are legendary) are a big reason behind the concealment of the facts. For example, a federal investigation of the incident never took place -- everything was handled locally, information is missing, etc. Long's body is buried under so much concrete in the Capitol that an autopsy would be impossible, and his surviving descendants/relatives still believe Weiss assassinated him.