I took the Monday of SXSW off work as soon as I heard Gina Prince-Bythewood was scheduled to appear that day. This was the first SXSW I was drawn to attend any of the conference events at the festival -- usually I just stick to the movies. But getting to hear the director of Beyond the Lights (including one of my favorite performances of the year) speak a couple days after director Ava DuVernay was to deliver a keynote seemed like too much goodness to pass up.
On Saturday, I arrived two hours early for DuVernay's keynote, assuring myself a spot on the (side) front row. My friend Christina and I chatted with other folks in line, talked about other films on our schedule and spied actor Stephen Root walking past the line as the time grew near.
Hearing DuVernay speak was relevatory. You can view her speech below:
If there's one thing a movie starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart guarantees, it's mixed-to-negative critical reception and decent-to-stellar audience reaction. Both seem like strong possibilities this Friday with the release of the duo's new comedy Get Hard (2015), in which a wealthy tycoon (Ferrell) insists that his employee (Hart) show him the ins-and-outs of how to survive in prison after he himself is sentenced. Early screenings of Get Hard have brought claims of homophobia and racial stereotyping, yet the popularity of the movie's two stars should be enough to potentially carry the comedy to a healthy run at the box office.
Should Get Hard succeed, it will be another victory for director and co-writer Etan Cohen, who has found success writing such hits as Tropic Thunder and Men In Black 3. Yet for a select few, his collaboration with Mike Judge on the hilarious and somewhat horrifying Idiocracy (2006) remains his best work.
Judge's second live-action film and Cohen's first, Idiocracy told the story of an average army officer named Joe (Texas Film Awards honoree Luke Wilson), who unwillingly becomes the guinea pig for a top-secret experiment. Joe and a local hooker named Rita (Maya Rudolph) are cryogenically frozen for what they believe is a full year. Yet when the pair awaken, they soon realize 500 years have gone by and the world they once knew has been replaced with a corporate-driven society where everyone is quite literally, an idiot. With the help of an "attorney" named Frito (Dax Shepard), Joe and Rita attempt to make sense of the new and mind-numbingly dumb world where they find themselves.
I'm a lifelong non-smoker, and marijuana holds no interest for me, so Mitch Dickman's documentary Rolling Papers would be one of the least likely SXSW screenings to find me in its audience. However, I make a point every year to join friends for at least one or two screenings that I would never have selected myself. It's a great (non-chemical) way to expand the mind, you know? These excursions outside my comfort zone frequently pay off, and the fact you can walk into almost any film at this festival and enjoy yourself is a testament to the SXSW programming staff.
Rolling Papers can be considered as nothing but a complete success. The film is informative, focused and entertaining, generating interest in me for a topic I find generally unappealing. Dickman chose, wisely, to make his film not about recreational marijuana, its legalization in Colorado, or politics -- all tired subjects which have been covered extensively. Instead, his camera is witness to the birth of a ground shift in news coverage.
As newspapers around the country are in the process of closing their doors, the Denver Post takes a chance and assigns entertainment editor Ricardo Baca to create a new section, from the ground up, covering all things pot-related. In short order The Cannabist, as the online section is so cleverly named, is generating publicity, increasing subscriptions and raising eyebrows.
In addition to Baca, Dickman interviews Post editor Greg Moore and Cannabist staff writers including columnist John Wenzel, Jake Browne (reviews) and Brittany Driver (parenting). He also turns a lens on reviewer and photographer Ry Prichard who has distinguished himself as "the biggest weed nerd in town" according to Rolling Stone magazine, and accompanies Prichard to the "Cannabis Cup."
It would be easy to dismiss a marijuana-focused publication as frivolous or fringe, but Rolling Papers documents how Baca has built a serious, high-quality e-zine that even caught the attention of Whoopi Goldberg, who has contributed articles to the site. With contributors covering news, product reviews, recipes, culture and opinion, I find The Cannabist is a respectable publication that serves exactly the mission a news organization is meant to do, namely informing and enlightening its audience. I owe that finding to Mitch Dickman's excellent and entertaining movie.
Writer/director Ron Nyswaner recently debuted his first documentary feature film at SXSW last week. She's The Best Thing In It follows famous Broadway and television actress Mary Louise Wilson as she teaches a character acting class to a group of college students in New Orleans. I had the chance to sit down with both of them to discuss acting, the filmmaking process, and what it means to live the life of an artist.
Slackerwood: Ron, you're known for these intense narrative stories (a la Philadelphia, The Painted Veil). What drew you to Mary Louise's story and, furthermore, made you decide to do it as a documentary?
Ron Nyswaner: One of the reasons is I could control every aspect of it. I've made my living for many years as a feature film writer and, unlike a playwright, the screenwriter does not often have full creative control. I was able to work with a team that helped me shoot, but a lot of times I was behind the camera, I was getting the footage. And I was ultimately the financier -- those were all my reasons for making it a doc. And Mary Louise and I have a great relationship, we both admire each other's work, and I just thought it would be great fun to work on this together.
The most haunting images in the drug war documentary Kingdom of Shadows are at the film's end. Family members of the "disappeared" -- those who have vanished amid the drug-related violence in Mexico -- stare silently into the camera, the pained but stoic looks on their faces reminding us of the drug war's human toll.
Many documentaries have chronicled the drug war in the U.S. and Mexico, but few have humanized it as poignantly as Kingdom of Shadows. While the film explains some of the politics and history of the endless battle against the drug cartels, it also puts an unforgettable face on the war's tragic effects by focusing on three people caught up in it.
The three defy stereotypes. Sister Consuelo Morales may be a petite nun in her sixties, but she's fierce and fearless in her quest to help families whose loved ones have disappeared. Based in Monterrey -- a Mexican city battered by the cartels -- and founder of the activist group Citizens in Support of Human Rights, she is unafraid to stand toe-to-toe with government officials, pressuring them to find the missing and help the families find justice.
This week sees the release of The Gunman, an actioner starring Sean Penn as a sniper on the run for his life after the assassination job he was hired for goes awry. The film will surely draw in the parents of teens seeking out Insurgent, thereby affording The Gunman a decent performance at the box office.
In looking back through Penn's filmography before writing this, it became evident to me that the incredibly fearless actor has only anchored a number of films throughout his many years in the movies. Moreover, his selectivity toward leading projects and the diversity of his choices make him one of the most chameleon-like actors in film.
Among all of Penn's leading turns, my favorite still remains his Oscar-nominated work in the drama I Am Sam (2001). Penn spent many hours studying the developmentally challenged (to compelling and magical effect) in order to play Sam Dawson, a man with the mind of a child who finds his young daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) taken from him after he is declared an unfit parent due to his disability. Through a series of events, Sam meets a high-powered attorney Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer) who agrees to help Sam prove that, regardless of his limitations, he does indeed have the ability to be the father Lucy deserves.
Even if you've spent the last week in line for SXSW movies all across town, I'm here to report that there's no rest for the wicked. There are a lot of incredible screenings ahead that you won't want to miss, so buck up! First up, the Violet Crown Cinema has White Haired Witch on deck for Asian Movie Madness on Tuesday night. The movie is sponsored by Well Go USA and Iron Dragon TV and you can grab tickets here.
Jean Cocteau's 1946 adaptation of Beauty And The Beast screens on Tuesday up at the Austin Film Society Screening Room (1901 E. 51st Street) for Avant Cinema. Richard Linklater returns with the first selection in the "Jewels In The Wasteland II" series, which will find him presenting Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise in 35mm on Wednesday at the Marchesa. You can buy a series pass here to get you into the first 5 films of the series and save some cash if you're going to make it out to each film. On Thursday night, the recent "Children Of Abraham/Ibrahim 9" series wraps up at the Marchesa with 2011's Free Men.
The Drafthouse is serving up all-you-can-eat pizza parties for the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie this weekend. It's at Alamo Lakeline on Saturday at noon and then at Alamo Slaughter Lane on Sunday at noon. Afternoon Tea also happens at Alamo Slaughter on Saturday afternoon with Joe Wright's Atonement. There's another benefit screening of The Warriors at Slaughter on Tuesday to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society via the Drafthouse's own MS-150 bike team, and the Drafthouse will also be hosting a "Backwards Feast" for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button on Wednesday.
When a film starts with a history lesson told music video-style through French-language rap, you know you're watching something unique. The impeccable sound design is the first thing I noticed about They Will Have to Kill Us First; clear gun pops accompany news reports and this introductory music. The opening sequence explains recent events in Mali that led to the split of the country and the sharia law ruling the northern section. Residents of Timbuktu and Goa became refugees in their own country as they left the violent unrest of the north to live in Bamako... or surrounding border countries such as Burkina Faso.
Among those forced to leave were many musicians, as music was banned in the north in 2012. How difficult it is to imagine a day without music -- months without it must have felt a lifetime. As famous singer Khaira Arby puts it, "Music is like oxygen for human beings." When we first see her in 2012, she seems a dimmed version of her self, distraught over the fate of her country. Filmmaker Johanna Schwartz also introduces us to the newly formed band Songhoy Blues, party musician Moussa and refugee singer Disco.
KRISHA is why we go to film festivals.
In a world full of great films that are very much alike -- even indie movies at festivals -- KRISHA rises above the been-there-seen-that noise with a truly unique style and vision. Trey Edward Shults' odd but arresting drama is a thoroughly original twist on a well-worn genre, the family holiday film.
KRISHA rose far enough above the noise at this year's SXSW Film Festival to take home the Narrative Feature Competition Grand Jury Award. Those who had the foresight and good sense to attend the film's world premiere at SXSW (which did not sell out, but should have) know it certainly deserves the honor.
Based on Shults' short film of the same title, which won the Narrative Short Special Jury Award at SXSW 2014, KRISHA is a story many of us know too well. The film's titular character arrives at a family Thanksgiving gathering after an absence of more than 10 years. Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is a gloriously dysfunctional middle-aged woman who barely keeps it together (and frequently doesn't) while battling various inner demons.
The Duplass brothers break the mold as far as family filmmaker teams go. They seem to have a knack for stories that are zany, yet peppered with flecks of true humanity. Even as producers, no two of their projects seem to be like one another. It therefore was no surprise (to me, at least) that they were part of the team behind writer/director J. Davis's premiere narrative feature film, Manson Family Vacation.
Jay Duplass takes the acting lead in this film as Nick, an anally neurotic lawyer who lives a structured life with his wife and son. When his off-the-wall adopted brother Conrad (Linas Phillips) passes through town on his way to a mysterious new job, Nick gives in to Conrad's plea of spending some quality time together. But Conrad's idea of brotherly bonding isn't quite normal: he wants to visit all of the landmarks and sites of the Charles Manson murders.
Driven by Conrad's urgent desire to start his new job with a group of "environmental activists" in the desert, the two find themselves thrown into a journey that forces them to acknowledge their estranged childhood. When Conrad's connection to Manson becomes deeper than expected, it challenges Nick to finally be the brother Conrad always sought in him, causing the story to take an unpredictable turn. (Like I said: zany with flecks of humanity.)