Deciding which movies to see at film festivals can be a crap shoot. Some incessantly hyped films with great pedigrees can be enormously disappointing. On the other hand, some largely unpublicized films don't come across well in trailers and synopses, so you skip them, only to hear later that you missed a truly great time at the movies. Still others seem worth a look, so you give them a chance and discover that they are, well, worth a look, but not memorable.
And then there are rare indie gems like Five Time Champion that remind you why you go to film festivals.
Be prepared for a gushing review of this stellar film, one of the best I've seen in ages. Oh, if only all movies were such a pleasure to review; the greatest challenge in reviewing Five Time Champion, which had its world premiere at the Paramount on March 12, may be finding enough superlatives to describe its many charms without being repetitive.
Set and filmed in Austin and Smithville, Texas, Five Time Champion is equal parts teen romance, coming of age story and commentary about the complicated nature of relationships at every stage in life. The protagonist is 13-ish Julius (Ryan Akin), a smart, scientifically gifted kid who's in the awkward throes of sexual exploration with his girlfriend, Shiley (Noell Coet). Complicating matters are the obvious charms of his classmate Teena (Gabi Walker), who's ready to take Shiley's place at the first available opportunity. Further complicating matters is Julius's general ambivalence toward sex; he wonders if he's gay, especially since his long-gone father, Harold (Robert Longstreet), is rumored to have left his mother for another man. Julius's confusion about his own sexual orientation leads to horrifying self-destructive behavior.
We interrupt this festival coverage to rave about the tremendously positive reception of Austinite Emily Hagins' third feature film, My Sucky Teen Romance.
Sure, we're totally biased -- at least I am, and I'm not the only Slackerwood contributor who is. I contributed to the crowdfunding, and I know many people who worked on the movie, including Emily. Our Mike Saulters was an extra. But I'm very pleased to report that the Paramount had to open up the balcony for the world premiere of My Sucky Teen Romance. It didn't quite fill the theater to capacity, but the lower balcony had a big lively crowd, which is always a great thing for filmmakers, especially once the SXSW music festival starts. Emily is one of our own, and she's done us proud, just like we knew she would.
On Friday night, Austin-based filmmaker Aaron Burns brought his first feature-length film, blacktino, to the Paramount Theatre for its world premier. It was an event worthy of SXSW opening night. A food truck was parked on 7th Street, giving out free tacos to the crowd. A photo backdrop was setup for people to take pictures. Even the director was out -- buzzing a bit from opening-night adrenaline -- walking the line and greeting the enthusiastic crowd.
The movie started late, due to delays in seating, but once it did the crowd was no less enthusiastic. Every credit was given a loud cheer. If they showed those awful "FBI warnings" before cinema films, I think even that would have gotten applause. This clearly was a hometown crowd rooting for the home team. They even applauded a shot of the Austin skyline, later in the film.
Blacktino is a dark teen comedy about drama nerd Stefan Daily (Austin Marshall), born of an African-American mother and a Hispanic father. Daily lives with his Nana (charmingly played with a small dose of Betty White spunkiness by Selma Pinkard). In his spare time, Stefan writes music and keeps a blog. His school is divided into rigid cliques, and it's not that there is a lot of hostility among the groups -- they just don't mix.
Roger Ebert has said that it is unprofessional for film critics to have their photos taken with celebrities. I've decided this means "human celebrities" and not Muppets, so I caved in and posed with Elmo (and Kevin Clash) after the first SXSW screening of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey. See the movie if you like Muppets, it's very nice. (And if you miss it at SXSW, it's just been announced that Being Elmo is the opening-night film at next month's Dallas International Film Festival.)
Anyway, here are some of my observations from the fest so far, as well as bits of news.
- SXSW has now become a fest where distribution deals are made. So far, several deals have been announced: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop in a multi-platform release deal involving AT&T; food doc A Matter of Taste to HBO; and Kill List (from the Down Terrace director) to IFC Midnighters. No word yet on any Austin films, but we'll keep you posted.
- Parking in pay garages was no problem for me on the weekend, but I heard yesterday that once afternoon started, it was challenging even to find a pay lot or garage that wasn't full. (I was at Alamo Lamar on Monday and can't say for myself.) Anyone have any info on this? I'm heading down there early today and hope that won't be an issue.
- I caught Wuss at Westgate on Sunday, and enjoyed it very much. Westgate is a nice SXSW venue if you have a car. Plenty of parking, and the theater is quite spacious, with comfy stadium seating. The projection and sound quality were both good.
I just realized I haven't brought up the bumpers this year yet. Absolutely love them, from (Super) "Mario" re-conceived as a live-action thriller, to "The Line" mocking festival lines. Kudos to SXSW and Austin filmmaker Joe Nicolosi for the fun bumpers (as well as not taking it too seriously). If you need to see examples of "Knitta" just look around when you're in line at the Alamo South Lamar. I don't know the title of the one featuring John "Zach Galifianakis looks like me" Merriman, but I wasn't the only one giggling.
Despite my plan to not have a plan this year, I managed to catch a lot of films today, including Where Soldiers Come From, Last Days Here, A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt and Natural Selection. Let me say today was an A+ day for films. I really liked them all, and the only downside was Cap Metro's #484 Night Owl that should have left 6th and Congress at 1:40 am not making its way down South Lamar.
My experience this year at SXSW has been fairly relaxed as I decided to take time off from the red-carpet frenzy for a more unstructured approach. Being without a firm schedule was a little unnerving at first, but I've discovered that it's a great way to let SXSW serendipity lend a hand to great experiences.
One of those moments happened yesterday when I skipped the AFF Hair of the Dog Brunch to attend an early screening of Natural Selection at the newly renovated State Theatre. Despite the time change, a good crowd turned out for this narrative competition film. I was not disappointed, as I was thoroughly entertained and touched by the story and characters of Natural Selection -- check back this week for my review.
After the screening, I was invited to the premiere party for Natural Selection, which included a modest gathering of the cast and crew with family, friends and supporters. We were pleasantly surprised when actor/musician John Corbett (Sex and the City, Serendipity) showed up with a couple of his bandmates -- turns out that he and Natural Selection supporting actor Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite, Men in Black) -- seen above with Corbett and Tara Novick -- are longtime friends. Check out more photos after the jump:
Little Deaths is playing SXSW as part of its SXFantastic genre film series. It's a UK anthology of three stories connected by themes of sex (often kinky) and death (often disturbing).
In "House and Home," a couple with the enthusiasm of religious missionaries and an inability to find sexual satisfaction in each other do find that satisfaction by preying on society's unfortunates. They may have bitten off too much, however, with their latest victim. This story felt a bit simplisitic, and lacked the foreshadowing necessary to deliver satisfying payoff from the turns. Caution: while the entire film is infused with sex and horror, this particular short had scenes of sexual violence that might be difficult for some.
I was fortunate to have a few minutes with Djo Tunda Wa Munga, the writer/director of Viva Riva!, to discuss the movie after I saw it at SXSW on Friday night. Read my review first, to get an idea of what Viva Riva! is about and why I enjoyed it so much.
MS: Would you consider this something of a blaxploitation film?
Djo: I actually have to be honest with you, because people ask me that question thinking that maybe I did it in that sense. Not really, OK, and because that was not the source of inspiration, even if I like blaxploitation, but I didn't think about it when I was developing the movie. But what I can see is probably in terms of, like expression, in violence and the social tensions that we had were maybe similar to what you had in the 70s and 60s in the black community, that there is a parallel.
MS: I loved everything, I loved that it was very gritty, very visceral. There were some people in the audience who were shocked at the violence, and I'm coming from a background of Quentin Tarantino films, etc. Were you surprised to get that reception, do you think maybe that this was the wrong audience?
Djo: I'm really surprised that people say the film is so violent, because you expect that, I mean, the idea we have of American movies are quite violent. Maybe that has changed these last years, but I am surprised by that reaction. But, maybe the audience should be younger and maybe that's like maybe that's their fear, they would relate to it more easily.
MS: Have you come to the fest trying to sell the film?
Djo: No, I came to the fest first trying to meet the American audience. That was the first work because the film is being released in the U.S., which means we sold it already. It's being released the 10th of June, by Music Box.
A few facts about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which you may have known as Zaire: It is the third largest country in Africa and the 12th largest in the world, and the 18th most populous. The citizens are some of the poorest in the world, but the country has untapped natural resources estimated at $24 trillion, making it the richest country in the world. It has been for the last 40 years one of the most corrupt, violent, and lawless places on the planet.
Djo Tunda Wa Munga (pronounced "Joe" for short) has written, produced, and directed the first movie ever to come out of the Congo, a country which until now has had no film industry. Viva Riva! is a gorgeously gritty, sexy adventure that, if it were a book, you couldn't put down. An unintentional blaxploitation piece, the core is a plot you might see in a Tarantino film or something like Snatch, but with all the dials turned up to 11. The depth of violence here isn't an attempt to pander to adolescent bloodlust, but rather an expression of the severe circumstances in which people have had to live in that country.
It's only the end of day three, but I'm already having to remind myself SXSW is a marathon. I got up and out the door in time to make a brief appearance at the AFF Hair of the Dog Brunch over at Star Bar, but my stay had to be short, since I had interviews with Apart director Aaron Rottinghaus along with actors Josh Danziger (pictured above) and Joey Lauren Adams. I hope to have those interviews up soon.
I hoofed it over to the ACC film shuttle stop, and just in time to catch the shuttle over to Alamo on South Lamar. Sleep deprivation has really kicked in because as I was walking to the stop and dodging Interactive folks who'd stop in their tracks to read something on their phones, I'd decided to see 96 Minutes and then completely forgot when the guy in front of me said he was one of the films producers. Regardless, I recommend 96 Minutes as an intriguing character study, with very strong leads in Brittany Snow (Harry's Law) and Evan Ross (90210), as well as a strong feature film debut for Aimee Lagos.