This is turning out to be a very different year for SXSW, as though last year's tragedy marked a turning point where the city and the SXSW staff realized that things had gotten out of hand with too much going on at once with too little control. The result has been in my own observation that downtown seemed practically dead when I arrived Friday to pick up my badge. Strictly limited permitting for outside events and venues in addition to much of the interactive events being relocated away from the convention center have thinned the crowd to manageable levels, though we will see if that persists as the music portion of the fest kicks into gear.
Movies I've seen:
This documentary by brothers Bill and Turner Ross (who premiered Tchoupitoulas at SXSW 2012) covers 13 months in the border city of Eagle Pass during Chad Foster's last term as mayor. Foster gained recognition as an outspoken opponent of the border fence idea.
Much of the film focuses on the lives of ranchers and cattle traders who purchase cattle on the Mexican side of the border and transport them for sale in the US. Eagle Pass is presented as an idyllic locale where the Mexican and American cultures are so intermingled as to be indistinct. Foster, for instance, in his speeches switches between perfectly-accented Spanish and a completely authentic Texan drawl English mid-sentence. As outside political forces close the border and begin to erect walls that threaten their livelihood, the citizens of Eagle Pass struggle to understand the paranoia over drug cartel violence until it reaches their doorstep.
Writer/director Ron Nyswaner once talked to me about how he thought he was considered a "niche writer" in Hollywood. In an interview at the 2013 Austin Film Festival, Nyswaner says, "If you know a story about someone who's been beaten to death with a baseball bat because he was dating a transgender woman, call me. I do those things [stories] really well."
I prepared myself for that same grit when I watched Nyswaner's film She's The Best Thing In It, and was pleased to see that same kind of intensity manifested in a different way.
This film is Nyswaner's directorial debut as a documentary filmmaker. It follows award-winning actress Mary Louise Wilson as she embarks on teaching a college acting class in her hometown of New Orleans. Now in her 70s, Wilson is seen by some as a "has been." Photos and film clips take us through her history of stardom in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but wear off upon present day.
When I think of Hannah Fidell's style as a filmmaker, I'm reminded of something that Peter Bogdanovich once told a class I took in film school. He said that he believed that films should tell a story in the simplest way. To achieve this, you shouldn't let your audience feel like they're watching something on a screen, but instead be transported to the moments your characters are encountering as if you're right there next to them. This was my constant thought while watching Fidell's latest movie, 6 Years.
The SXSW veteran premiered her second feature this past weekend, just two years after the debut of her critically-acclaimed film A Teacher. Having seen A Teacher back in 2013, I was eager to find out how this latest piece would grab me. A first feature is a great mountain to climb, but a second feature is a different kind of beast. It's when filmmakers start to show their trends, their consistencies and what makes them stand out as storytellers.
The story focuses on the crumbling relationship between college students Dan (Ben Rosenfield) and Mel (Taissa Farmiga). Set in our hometown of Austin, Dan and Mel have a perfectly content relationship until some big life changes start to shift their world views. It feels like a story that's happened to most of us: trying to deal with the plans you make versus the plans life initially has in store for you. It's heartbreaking yet satisfactory to see this kind of story told so well on screen.
Sometimes peace is purchased with violence.
-- Salt Lake County Sheriff James Winder, in Peace Officer
William "Dub" Lawrence is the perfect documentary subject. After a long career in law enforcement, he has many stories to tell -- he helped break the Ted Bundy case as a rookie cop, and the failings of criminal justice he saw on the beat inspired his successful run for Sheriff of Davis County, Utah in 1974. Now semi-retired, he works as a private investigator and, curiously, also repairs water and sewage pumps. In his spare time, he flies his private plane.
He's also spent much of his spare time investigating a tragic episode in his life, one that inspired the enraging new documentary Peace Officer: In 2008, the SWAT team he established 30 years earlier killed his son-in-law, Brian Wood, during a standoff at Wood's house.
After physically abusing his wife, Wood retreated to the cab of his pickup and was threatening to kill himself. He was calm and threatened no one else, but when police arrived, the incident quickly escalated as dozens of officers from multiple SWAT teams surrounded the house. They arrived in armored vehicles and even a helicopter, shot out the truck's windows, and the event became a media circus. After many hours, the standoff ended in mayhem -- and Wood ended up dead. The police claimed he committed suicide.
The eminent actor appears in almost every scene of Green's latest film, Manglehorn, giving Pacino plenty of time to explore the grumpy oddball A.J. Manglehorn's every mood and motivation. Rarely are an actor and role so well matched, as Pacino plays A.J. with a perfect mix of shopworn sadness, vulnerability and simmering anger. (Known for his louder performances --- Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon and Tony Montana in Scarface are only two among many -- Pacino reminds us that he has the range to play much quieter and more sensitive types.)
A.J. is the central figure in a story of loss and regret. An aging locksmith, he spends lonely days in his cluttered shop with few customers. Long divorced, he spends equally lonely nights with his cat. His self-absorbed son, Jacob (Chris Messina), has no time for him, and he rarely sees his granddaughter, Kylie (Skylar Gasper).
In his lonelier moments -- there are many -- A.J. obsesses about a lost love, Clara (Natalie Wilemon). She wasn't his wife and their relationship ended long ago, but Manglehorn tells us little more about her. Whoever Clara is, A.J. remains passionately in love with her; he still writes her letters.
Director Katie Cokinos brings her feature film I Dream Too Much to SXSW next week. Cokinos, a former Managing Director for Austin Film Society, also wrote the movie about Dora, a recent college grad dealing with a life in flux.
The cast of I Dream Too Much includes such talent as Diane Ladd and Danielle Brooks (Orange Is the New Black) along with the newer face of Eden Brolin, who plays Dora. Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater is executive producer of this movie shot in snowy Saugerties, New York, where Cokinos lives now. She answered some questions for us (via email).
Slackerwood: What inspired the story for I Dream Too Much?
Katie Cokinos: The inspiration for IDTM was my own painful memories of graduating college and not knowing what the hell to do with my life -- but knowing I loved movies. The world seemed huge and I didn't know how to put my passion to use; my life felt like a big unknown. I also had a lot of family pressure to go to law school and I almost did (but it's not a good idea to make a decision based on fear).
It's a real barebones week if you're not attending the SXSW Film Festival, which will screen movies around town until Saturday, March 20. Slackerwood will, of course, be featuring daily coverage and reviews. Some area theaters (including the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, Violet Crown Cinema and The Marchesa) will be closed for regular business while they screen features for festivalgoers. In the case of the Alamo Slaugher Lane and South Lamar, they will still be screening some regular films, but also have a few screens at each location that are devoted entirely to the festival for the first few days. If you're planning to head over to catch a movie that isn't part of the fest, give yourself some extra time for parking and getting yourself through the crowds.
Specialty screenings are not expansive over the next week, but a few Alamo locations are serving up Kid's Club movies in the mornings for families home over Spring Break. Alamo Lakeline has the original 1976 version of Freaky Friday, Alamo Slaughter has The Lego Movie and Alamo Village has Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. Check out the Alamo Drafthouse website for exact showtimes. Tickets for all these shows are $1 and 100 percent of the ticket money will be donated to local charities. Admission is first come, first serve and tickets can only be purchased at the box office on the day of the show.
On that note, if you are a local teacher or school faculty member, you can attend a free movie at any Alamo Drafthouse location from now through March 22. You can choose any movie, except for special events, by bringing your faculty or employee ID to the box office to redeem your free Spring Break ticket.
In director Kenneth Branagh's hands, the movie Cinderella is an uninspired retelling of the famous folktale accompanied by sumptuous set design and lush, technicolor costuming. From the Renoir-inspired setting of the opening scene to the disappointing finale, the film is pretty to look at but empty of any real depth or feeling.
Young Cinderella (Lily James, Downton Abbey) is born to an adoring, yet soon ailing mother (Hayley Atwell, Agent Carter). Her father, played by an unrecognizable Ben Chaplin (The Truth About Cats & Dogs), is a mercer, I think? After her mother's death, he marries brusque widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett, wasted in this role but absolutely pulling off some amazing outfits).
As in the animated Disney original, Cinderella talks to animals. Mice and lizards in this movie are digitized out the wazoo, which is funny yet off-putting. Her stepmother has a cat named Lucifer. Her stepsisters are named Anastasia (Holiday Grainger, Jane Eyre) and Drizella (Sophie McShera, also from Downton Abbey).
I've always found Kenneth Branagh's directorial career to be one of the most wildly unpredictable and diverse of any filmmaker around. Each project he takes on yields impressive and fascinating results. Who else could successfully pull off the Shakespearean power of Henry V (1989), the heart and terror of Frankenstein (1994), the comedic charm of A Midwinter's Tale (1995) ... and the operatic comic-book action of Thor (2011)?
This week, Branagh adds yet another footnote to an already remarkable directing career with his live-action feature adaptation of the classic fairytale Cinderella (2015), starring Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter. Knowing Branagh's respectful approach to well-known material, not to mention a collection of positive reviews and solid audience interest, Cinderella will no doubt turn into another cinematic victory for the actor/director.
With the release of Cinderella this week, I couldn't resist the opportunity to write about my favorite Branagh film, Dead Again (1991). Made on the heels of his triumph with Henry V, and released at a time when the early nineties neo-noir genre was at its peak, Branagh directed and starred with then-wife Emma Thompson in this stylish thriller about romance and murder.
SXSW Film makes international news with A-list stars and big premieres, but some of the best films come in small packages. Eighty-seven short film titles have been announced -- not counting the music videos -- for this year's fest. Here is just a taste of some of the spectacular shorts from the program.
Animated Shorts (screening info)
All Your Favorite Shows!
This is a stunning and seamless blend of animation, live action and millisecond clips and audio from scores of recognizable hit films that looks like it must have taken decades of work to put together. Not just an amazing visual piece, it includes sound design and storytelling of equal quality. This packs more action into 5 minutes than most features manage in 2 hours.
With a tasty treat that reminds us film folk the root of SXSW has always been music, Julian Petschek takes "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" to the heights of its full hip-hop potential. Flashy and funny, this music video sets a catchy beat against vocals and lyrics by Katrina Recto AKA Kat Knoc, Jacob Gibson AKA C.U.B. and DJ Petroleum Jelly.
Documentary Shorts 1 (screening info)
ESPN isn't only just football, basketball, and baseball. This documentary directed by Gabe Spitzer tells the amazing story -- in her own words -- of Joy Johnson, who began running marathons after retirement and ran the New York marathon 25 times. An inspirational, beautiful and lasting legacy.