Reviews

SXSW Review: 7 Chinese Brothers

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7 Chinese Brothers

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.

SXSW Review: Rolling Papers

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Rolling PapersI'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.

SXSW Review: Kingdom of Shadows

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Kingdom of Shadows

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.

Box-Office Alternatives: I Am Sam

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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.

SXSW Review: They Will Have to Kill Us First

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Khaira Arby in They Will Have to Kill Us First

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.

SXSW Review: KRISHA

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Krisha

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.

SXSW Review: Manson Family Vacation

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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.)

SXSW Review: Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove

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Sir Doug

You just can't live in Texas/If you don't have a lot of soul
-- Doug Sahm, "At the Crossroads"

Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove is a groove all right, and a great tribute to one of Texas' greatest musicians.

Doug Sahm gave us "She's About a Mover" and "Mendocino" -- along with a zillion other songs -- and was an influential songwriter and performer who reinvented himself musically many times. He played in country bands as a child, cranked out Sixties pop songs with the Sir Douglas Quintet, turned psychedelic in San Francisco, helped put Austin's cosmic cowboys on the map in the Seventies, and ultimately returned to his San Antonio Tex-Mex roots with the Texas Tornadoes in the Nineties. Sahm wasn't just able to play any form of indigenous Texas music; he was Texas music.

Sir Doug celebrates all of Sahm's musical incarnations. Kicking off with a killer 1976 Austin City Limits performance of "She's About a Mover," the documentary then takes us back to Sahm's days as a child prodigy playing steel guitar in San Antonio clubs. (Known as Little Doug Sahm, he played with Hank Williams and other greats before he was a teenager.)

SXSW Review: Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas

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Speed of Light

Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas, a collection of six short films made in the Austin area in the early Eighties, is a great flashback to the early days of Austin's film scene.

A great flashback -- but not necessarily a collection of great films. They're intriguing cinematic artifacts made by filmmakers with obvious talent, but most of them are crudely made and may appeal only to those who share the filmmakers' punk/new wave sensibilities.

Demme presented the movies in a program at the Collective of Living Cinema in New York City in October 1981 after seeing them on a previous visit to Austin. The program earned a lot of great press -- but despite critical success and Demme's enthusiastic cheerleading, the films suffered the fate of most short films, being mostly forgotten outside a cult following of devoted fans and film history buffs.

But thanks to SXSW co-founder Louis Black (who was involved with several of the films), the surviving filmmakers and a team of film restorers, the six films in Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas are back, lovingly restored, headed for the film-festival circuit and soon to be released on home video from The University of Texas Press.

SXSW Review: Petting Zoo

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Deztiny Gonzales and Devon Keller in Petting Zoo

Layla (newcomer Devon Keller) is a high-school senior shacking up with her dropout boyfriend Danny (Kiowa Tucker). An honor student, she gets a scholarship to UT Austin and then finds out she's pregnant. Given her predicament, what can she do? Petting Zoo, from director Micah Magee (see my interview with her), thrusts the viewer into several months of Layla's life.

One notable facet to the main character is that she is working poor.  Layla refuses to live with her financially stable but abusive father, so has to move in with her elderly grandmother (Adrienne Harrell, Zero Charisma) and share a bed. Magee perfectly conveys the utter vulnerability of her situation. We see Layla sleeping many times -- through loud parties in Danny's apartment, in a friend's car after seeing Girl in a Coma, on her grandmother's couch after hearing bad news. Such sequences illustrate the precariousness of her life, and the limits of her control -- especially when she loses her support system.

This is not to say that Layla has no choice in anything; that would be a false statement.  What decisions she can make, she does. She leaves her loser boyfriend, decides to keep her baby, and wants to make it on her own. She also falls into a relationship with fellow graduate Aaron (Austin Reed).