What you should do instead of reading this review is find a way to see the movie Thunder Soul; I guarantee within the first few minutes you'll be hooked.
Perhaps you need more than an urging from me and all the other people who loved it. The best documentaries expose us to things we might not otherwise be aware, educate, motivate and entertain, and prove that fact can be wilder than fiction. The best can do all of the above. Thunder Soul, directed by Mark Landsman, is a documentary that has done all of the above, and will make you reach for your wallet to help fund music in schools and to buy high school students music. It proves just how important a music program can be to the students of your local school.
Thunder Soul is both a profile of stage band director and composer Conrad O. Johnson and a celebration of the music he and his students created. Between 1968 and 1977, the Kashmere High School in Houston's 5th Ward had a stage band performing music that put professionals to shame. With 42 regional titles, 2 national titles, and invitations to play in Europe and Japan, the Kashmere Stage Band took the world by storm.
I have to disclose a personal bias with filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass. They grew up in a nearby neighborhood to ours in Metairie (a suburb of New Orleans), and went to the same high school as my brothers (Jesuit High School, New Orleans). They remember one of my brothers' cross-country feats fondly. Our mommas sometimes run into one another over at the Economical (or maybe the Rouse's). It was surreal to find out that "those Duplass boys" had moved to Austin too, and made a movie that was playing SXSW the first year I went to the festival, 2005.
Five years later, Jay and Mark Duplass brought their Fox Searchlight-produced film Cyrus to Sundance and then here to Austin for SXSW, where the movie screened on a Saturday night at the Paramount to a full house. I met up with them at the Four Seasons downtown the next day for a brief interview. Things have definitely changed since 2005 -- and not just that they no longer live in Austin. Cyrus will be released this summer and stars John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill. Read my review for more details.
I know I'm not the only one who felt a little nostalgic during the SXSW screening of Cyrus, the latest film from the filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. The former Austinites debuted The Puffy Chair in 2005, at the first SXSW I attended, in a weeknight screening at Alamo on South Lamar. Five years later, they've made a film with Fox Searchlight that stars John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei and Jonah Hill, which premiered at Sundance in January. The question is -- is it any good? Did the studio experience "spoil" the filmmakers' style?
I think Cyrus is the best feature film the brothers have made so far -- and one that will appeal to a wider audience than, say, Baghead, which was funny if you go to a lot of film festivals but didn't quite catch on outside of that circle. However, the brothers are still able to retain their skewed sense of humor and their intimate way of shooting a scene.
Reilly plays John, a middle-age schlub whose ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) is trying to encourage him to date. The scene in which Jamie strides into John's house uninvited and finds him engaged in a rather private activity speaks worlds about both characters. And then there's the party where Jamie and her fiance push John into trying to introduce himself to various women. That party may seem awfully familiar to some of us. Fortunately, John meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), in what may be is a modern-day twist on the Meet Cute scenarios of old-fashioned romantic comedies, and they hit it off fairly quickly.
Set in the 80s, Skateland is a coming-of-age drama in a small East Texas town. The lead characters deal in different ways with pivotal moments and decisions in their lives. Writer/director Anthony Burns and co-writers Brandon and Heath Freeman deliver a solid production through cinematography and editing that allows the ensemble cast to really shine in this film, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The central story revolves around charismatic Ritchie Wheeler (Shiloh Fernandez), who is needing to deal with life after high school but he doesn't have a plan -- he's content working as a manager at the local skating rink, Skateland, but it's closing its doors soon. Ritchie's childhood buddy Brent Burkham (Heath Freeman) moves back home after he's dropped from the motorcross racing circuit and begins working on an oil drilling site with his dad. Ritchie also spends a lot of time hanging out with Brent's sister Michelle (Ashley Greene), who is eager to take the next step in both life and their relationship. Ritchie doesn't seem to concerned about moving on with his life, which is frustrating to his younger sister Mary (Haley Ramm), who is eager to see her older brother make something of himself.
What do you do if it turns out your very existence is a lie? Clay Liford's feature film Earthling explores identity, relationship and the meaning of home in his follow-up to his Sundance selection short My Mom Smokes Weed.
After a mysterious "atmospheric event," teacher Judith (Rebecca Spence) finds herself at odds with her life, and haunted by an enigmatic student, Abby (Amelia Turner). Judith realizes that the life she thought she had has been a pretense, and after Abby's insistence they are connected, Judith's life starts falling apart.
Clay Liford defies current science-fiction convention, eschewing rockets, robots and rayguns (the "r-cubed" he mentions in our earlier interview) to employ a low-budget indie style that emphasizes the story. Earthling employs an old-school, pre-Star Wars science-fiction style, when the story was more important than the dressings, such as Tarkovsky's Solyaris (or even Soderbergh's remake Solaris). It's more like The Quiet Earth or Shane Carruth's Primer, a 2004 indie time traveller sleeper that shook up the indie/sci-fi world a bit. Primer was also filmed in Texas (Addison, to be exact; Earthling was filmed in Dallas).
I confess that the movie Lemmy was a pleasant surprise for me at SXSW. You'd think I would learn my lesson -- just because you aren't familiar with or aren't fond of a certain type of music, or musician, that doesn't mean you won't like a documentary about it/them. One of my favorite music documentaries is The Devil and Daniel Johnston but you won't find any of Johnston's albums in my house. I was assigned to review Lemmy for Cinematical and wasn't terribly enthusiastic, not being a big Motorhead fan, but as you can see from my review, I liked the documentary very much and found Lemmy to be a quite fascinating subject.
After Lemmy played the Paramount, filmmakers Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski appeared onstage for a Q&A. They were shortly joined by Lemmy himself, who is even more entertaining in person than he is in the movie. And near the end of the Q&A, the rest of Motorhead walked up from their seats in the audience and joined the group onstage, as you can see from the above photo. No one wanted to leave -- it was a fun and lively Q&A.
I've got a photo of Olliver and Orshoski after the jump. No news yet on when we'll get a chance to see Lemmy again, but I'll keep you posted.
If you live in Austin, or stuck around after the fest, you had the chance to see "Taste of SXSW" screenings of four films from the fest at Alamo earlier this week. But did you know that you can still see several films from SXSW 2009 and 2010 via cable TV and/or internet video on demand (VOD)?
I have Time Warner here in Austin, so I can't tell you how to find your VOD channels on other cable/satellite networks. It was hard enough to find on TWC. But if you're familiar with the VOD options with your digital TV provider, I'm sure you can find these films. On TWC, these are all on channel 1000 (Movies on Demand), and the newer ones are under the category SXSW 2010. The films you can see there are:
The DVD release of Twilight: New Moon was not on my radar last week until a couple of "Twihards" asked, "OMG -- did you get to meet Ashley Greene or Kristen Stewart at SXSW?!" As I showed you previously, I saw Stewart at The Runaways screening along with her co-star Dakota Fanning and rock star Cherie Currie. Indeed the red carpets were abuzz for the arrivals of both Twilight stars for their respective movies.
Ashley Greene, who plays Alice Cullen in the Twilight series, showed up in Austin during SXSW to promote Skateland. Skateland is set in the early 1980s and is centered around a 19-year-old skating rink manager who is forced to look in his life in a new way. However, it's the strength of the female characters and the women who portray them -- led by Greene -- that stands out in this film. Although most of the filming took place in Shreveport, Louisiana, the story is set in a small Texas town and many of the filmmakers graduated from The University of Texas at Austin, including producer Heath Freeman, who also plays Greene's character's brother.
If I recall correctly, I covered a total of nine red carpet premiere events at SXSW Film Festival this year. By far my favorite event was the red carpet for the locally produced documentary Richard Garriott: Man on a Mission, which took place on Sunday afternoon, March 14, at the Paramount Theatre. On display were some special items from his space travel collection, including a spacesuit and an actual Sputnik.
What you missed was hearing an unrepentant sci-fi geek talk about "R-Cubed" -- rockets, robots, and ray guns -- and how science fiction is far more than that. Liford's subtle science-fiction film Earthling harkens back to old-school science fiction. The Dallas filmmaker spoke at length about post-WWII science fiction and the power of that period in the genre's history.
He also went on to talk about early science-fiction films, such as the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, and his dislike for the recent remake. And how he wanted to create an indie film with science fiction elements that didn't rely on R-Cubed.
You'll also miss the admiration he has for his lead actress, Rebecca Spence, and not only how much she brought to the role of Judith, and how much she carries on her shoulders within the structure of the film. On top of all that, you don't get to hear how much respect she had for her director, who made a fundamental change in casting that switched gender of a character she had to interact with intimately.