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.
The Austin Film Society really knows the way to my heart. A brand new series begins this evening at the Marchesa called "Perfect Criminals: The '70s French Noir Connection" and you can buy a full series pass or grab individual tickets for the five French crime classics that AFS will be unspooling in the weeks to come. The first selection in the series is 1969's The Sicilian Clan in 35mm. Jean Gabin and Alain Delon star in this jewel heist thriller from director Henri Verneuil and it plays tonight and again on Sunday afternoon.
Also on Sunday, you've got one more chance to catch Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island Of Dr Moreau. I caught this at Fantastic Fest last year and was utterly fascinated by it. It recently had a screening at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, but now AFS is giving you a great opportunity to see it if you missed it (or maybe just want to take it all in again). Richard Linklater is back at the Marchesa on Wednesday to present Stuart Rosenberg's The Pope Of Greenwich Village in 35mm and host a post-film conversation. This 1986 drama stars Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts and Daryl Hannah. Essential Cinema wraps up the screening week on Thursday night with Rachid Bouchareb's Oscar-nominated WWII film Days Of Glory.
Meanwhile, the Austin Film Festival is teaming up with A24 for "Growing Up Baumbach: A Tribute to Noah Baumbach's 20 Years in Film." Noah's new film While You're Young is opening on April 10, so AFF is taking over the Texas Spirit Theater (inside the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum) to play some of his finest work next week. On Monday night, they'll screen The Squid and the Whale in 35mm, Kicking & Screaming will screen on Tuesday night in 35mm and Frances Ha plays (digitally) on Wednesday night. Tickets are $5 for general admission and are free for AFF members and Bullock Museum members.
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.
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.
Some movies feel like symphonies or rock concerts. Some feel like comic books (or graphic novels, if you prefer). Some feel like forgotten Faulkner short stories (David Gordon Green). And yes, some rare movies feel like poems, which is not the same as movies with poetic scenes. One excellent example of movie-as-poem is Les Blank's 1974 documentary A Poem Is a Naked Person, which screened at SXSW this year -- one of its very few public screenings.
This is not your standard music biopic by any means. Descriptions of the film often note that it's about musician Leon Russell and the Oklahoma studio he built in 1972, to encourage friends to make music with him. And so it is, but don't expect a linear or straightforward story along those lines. A Poem Is a Naked Person is trying to capture the feeling of the times, a sense of being in the moment with the music rather than following an artificial narrative.
Scenes shift from a studio session to a guy painting vivid murals on swimming pool walls to a dance-hall concert to another studio session to a crowd watching a building being demolished. The movie is both hippy and dippy, in an entirely appropriate and delightful way. (Even the subtitle font is perfectly groovy.) You get to enjoy not only great musicians playing together in Russell's studio, but also everything else going on around them -- a sense of context, as opposed to talking heads telling you everything.
"Documentary" feels like both the worst word to describe this movie, as it sets expectations for a particular style of film ... and exactly the right word, because Blank has captured the time and the mood and the music and the people so perfectly. The Voice of God narrative structure would be entirely out of place here.
Ultimately, A Poem Is a Naked Person is about art everywhere you look, and what that looked like in the early 1970s -- not confined solely to Russell's musical projects. Even if you're not a huge fan of Leon Russell or the other musicians in the film, including Willie Nelson, George Jones, Ambrose Campbell, Mary Egan and Eric Andersen, you can sit back and let the music and painting and parachuting and everything else just wash over you. But you have to connect the dots yourself ... set your expectations appropriately.
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.
At the peak of his popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood star Tab Hunter acted the part of the clean-cut California boy next door. But nearly 10 years ago, Hunter came out as gay. The documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, which premiered at SXSW, delves into those carefully closeted years and contrasts them with his current life, with the former teen idol himself guiding us through the narrative in a charming and heartfelt way.
The movie is generally linear in its approach, a traditionally structured biography. But its subject's life is continually fascinating. For example, the sequence describing Hunter's childhood is compactly edited and doesn't feel like yet another celebrity childhood stereotype. While the film focuses on Hunter's popularity peak in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hunter's professional and personal story continues through the present day, showing his movie-career revival in the 1980s (Polyester, Grease 2, Lust in the Dust) and his longtime relationship with Allan Glaser, one of the documentary's producers.
Perhaps if you've read Hunter's autobiography of the same name, few surprises are in store, but the film clips and interviews would still be engaging, illustrating the story of a man who's led a very complex life. Besides acting and singing, Hunter has been a competitive ice skater and throughout his life, has trained/rode horses professionally.
Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz (I Am Divine, Vito) has a deft touch with personal documentaries. The interviews with Hunter himself feel intimate without being intrusive. Other interviews include John Waters, Connie Stevens, George Takei, Debbie Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and ex-actress Rev. Mother Delores Hart. While the list sounds like a parade of celebrity, the interviews add insight and interest.
In addition, the archival film and TV footage in Tab Hunter Confidential is full of treasures. Many people remember Hunter at his peak as a teenage heartthrob -- can you name more than one of the movies he appeared in at that time? But he performed on TV in Playhouse 90 dramas directed by John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, back when such a thing was considered prestigious, highbrow fare. It's unfortunate these performances seem to be forgotten by contemporary audiences, for the most part.