SXSW

SXSW Review: Arlo and Julie

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Alex Dobrenko and Ashley Spillers in Arlo & Julie

Arlo (Alex Dobrenko, Hell No) and Julie (Ashley Spillers, Loves Her Gun) are your typical young twentysomething Austinites. Arlo works at a software company but writes historical articles about General Grant on the side. Julie is a waitress at a restaurant that looks like Eastside Cafe. They live, love and get by in a fourplex on W. 29th. One day, Julie receives a couple of puzzle pieces in the mail.

Such is the premise for director Steve Mims' adorable mystery-comedy Arlo and Julie. Filmed around Austin -- and on a soundstage at UT's RTF department -- this movie is a quirky look at obsession. As Julie and Arlo become more and more engrossed in this puzzle of puzzles, their lives and goals are ignored. The script, which Mims also wrote, is filled with laughs and bits of Civil War trivia. 

Old jazzy numbers punctuate scenes of Julie and Arlo waiting for the postman (Chris Doubek, The Happy Poet) or chatting with their friends Trish (Mallory Culbert, Saturday Morning Mystery), Rob (Hugo Vargas-Zesati) and Dirk (Sam Eidson, Zero Charisma). The music, witty banter, and backdrop of the downtown skyline bring to mind the best aspects of Manhattan.

SXSW Review: Cesar Chavez

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Cesar Chavez

Sí, se puede.

A wildly enthusiastic crowd chanted this Spanish slogan, meaning "Yes, it can be done" or "Yes, you can," after the SXSW screening of Cesar Chavez at the Paramount Theatre. In a testament to the film's inspirational power, the post-screening Q&A wasn't a Q&A at all -- it was a rally led by longtime labor activist Dolores Huerta, several cast members and Chavez's youngest son, Paul.

It's not surprising that Cesar Chavez inspired the impromptu celebration of Chavez's legacy. The film is heartfelt and deeply moving, a great tribute to Chavez and the movement he led.

Diego Luna's biopic of the exalted labor leader is tightly focused, following Chavez (Michael Peña) and his family from their move to Delano, California in 1962, the year Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later called the United Farm Workers), until the end of the union's successful grape boycott in the early 1970s. Cesar Chavez centers on Chavez and his wife, Helen (America Ferrera), as they struggle to raise eight children while fighting for farm workers' rights. But the movie is as much about the movement as it is about the man.

SXSW 2014: Mondo Gallery Ansin/Tong Show

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The Wizard of Oz 

A mere week after their tremendously successful Disney-themed gallery show, the folks at Mondo reset the gallery for a second SXSW exhibit -- this time, featuring works from two of their most popular artists, Martin Ansin and Kevin Tong. As usual, people were lined up around the block waiting their chance to purchase these beautiful limited-edition art prints.

Interview: Wes Anderson, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

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Wes Anderson of Grand Budapest HotelThe University of Texas at Austin alum Wes Anderson returned to his home state this month for the premiere of his latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel, at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival (Don's review). This adventurous story recounted by the elder Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) spans several decades and stars colorful characters including lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), who accompanies legendary concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) in a battle for a priceless painting.

Recurring Anderson ensemble cast members are liberally planted throughout this entertaining and often exotic film, including Tilda Swinton as a wealthy lover of M. Gustave, Adrien Brody as her money-grubbing relative Dmitri, Edward Norton as the police captain Henckels hot in pursuit, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman as fellow members of the clandestine fraternal order "The Society of the Crossed Keys."

I joined fellow film critics for a roundtable interview with Anderson while he was in Austin last week. We spoke at length about the production of The Grand Budapest Hotel as well as his personal influences. His unconventional production process lends to the lavishly complex style of his projects including this entertaining film.

SXSW Review: Born to Fly

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Born to FlyIf you have not heard of Streb Extreme Action Company and have not heard the name Elizabeth Streb, you'll wonder why after seeing the documentary Born to Fly by director Catherine Gund, which made its world premiere at SXSW 2014.

Streb was the recipient of the 1997 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award and is a member of the NYC Mayor's Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission. In 1985, she founded a unique dance company performing her own very physical style of choreography called Pop Action. Testing the limits of human motion, Streb dancers forcefully slam into walls, dive and crash into the padded floor, and dodge flying steel girders or launch themselves high into the air, taking flight as they play with industrial-looking sets populated with heavy machinery.

Not much of Streb's personal life is explored in Born to Fly, but that may likely be because her life is so interwound with her work. Streb has lived most of her life in the same space in which she works. Gund reviews Streb's career with a focus on recent achievements. Her piece "Little Ease," now performed by dancer Jackie Carlson, bridges the span between the years when Streb performed herself and her current work choreographing for the company. 

There is an element of danger in all Streb's performances, which as she states "do not try to hide the existence of gravity." The dancers are heavier and more solid than the traditional image, able to absorb the extreme stresses placed on their bodies by repeated heavy impacts.

At 62, however, Streb herself performed in her exhibition for the London Olympics titled "One Extraordinary Day," which included dancers bungee jumping from the Millenium Bridge, high-wire performances on the spokes of the London Eye, and an abseil down the side of City Hall.

Born to Fly does more than document Streb's work and life. The film elicits excitement about her work. It is at once exhilerating and transcendent. It will leave you wanting to see more, and indeed you can. The home of Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM) provides videos and information on live rehearsals and performances.

SXSW 2014: 'Wilderness of James' and 'Other Months'

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The Wilderness of JamesTired of the downtown scene after a weekend of expensive parking, crowds, and shuttle buses, I spent a day at the Alamo Drafthouse Village SXSatellite location. The satellite theaters have been a godsend for their convenience as well as the larger number of films the SXSW programmers can select because of them.

We at Slackerwood only wish the Village and Slaughter satellite locations screened films for the entire festival, instead of just through Thursday. (The Marchesa screened through Saturday, thankfully.)

The Wilderness of James

My first selection was a beautiful exploration of the teen psyche by first-time director Michael Johnson. The Wilderness of James stars Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) as James Charm, a young man obsessed with death. Living alone with his mother (Virginia Madsen) and bullied by the neighbor kids, he spends his time sketching dead animals and visiting his therapist (Danny DeVito, in one of the warmest roles he's ever taken). When he encounters and befriends Harmon (Evan Ross) on a late-night train ride, he is introduced to a new social world and begins to come out of his shell and conquer his emotional demons as he falls in love with Val (Isabelle Fuhrman).

Johnson's script is meditative, populated with likable and interesting characters, and intelligently written. His film is beautiful, and he treats his characters respectfully, writing believable dialogue in a story with a somewhat timeless quality. From the audience I felt a connection with the James character as the film brought back memories of adolescent fears and longings. As a thoughtful character study, The Wilderness of James is a pleasant experience.

SXSW 2014: An Unexpectedly Musical Finale

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Kevin Gant, SXSW 2014

My last movie for SXSW this year was the amusing Space Station 76, at Stateside. I planned to walk a little bit around downtown afterward and maybe take some photos of various interesting SXSW sights, if it didn't rain again. I chatted a little outside the theater with local actor Sam Eidson (Zero Charisma, SXSW 2013), who was still planning to see movies that day. I almost literally ran into Austin filmmaker Emily Hagins (Grow Up, Tony Phillips, SXSW 2013) as I walked down Congress to Sixth.

As I was passing Wholly Cow Burgers, a musician was playing a guitar under the awning, a frequent sight during non-rainy SXSW days. He looked so energetic and happy that I snapped his photo a couple of times, and we exchanged waves. I stopped briefly to listen and liked the music -- not a crappy cover pandering to passersby, not someone loudly learning to play. And he looked familiar. Why would a guitarist playing on the street look familiar?

I walked another block and remembered someone on Twitter mentioning they'd seen Kevin Gant playing on the street at SXSW, which at the time I thought was far-fetched. But ... did I just pass Kevin Gant, longtime Austin musician and the subject of Jay Duplass' short doc Kevin, which screened at SXSW 2011? Did I? If only I'd had the following photo with me from the Kevin premiere so I could compare ...

SXSW Review: Butterfly Girl

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Butterfly Girl Still PhotoAs the main subject of the documentary Butterfly Girl, written and directed by Houston-based writer and director Cary Bell, lovely 18-year-old Abigail Evans appears to be a typical teenager -- moody, stubborn, and sometimes overly dramatic -- longing for her first alcoholic drink and someone to hold her who is not a parent. However, her everyday drama and challenges are far apart from the usual high school experience. Abbie was born with the life-threatening skin disease of epidermolysis bullosa (EB), and has been homeschooled by her mother Stacie so that she can be safer at home or on the road with her father, Austin musician John Evans.

Much of Abbie's life has been spent in hospitals being treated for her genetic disease and the physical damage wreaked upon her hands, skin and esophagus. She depends on her mother as a caregiver, who does her laundry and housework. Unable to eat regularly due to blisters in her esophagus that require multiple surgeries a year, Abbie must supplement her caloric intake through a gastrostomy tube daily.

SXSW Review: Premature

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Premature

Ferris Bueller meets Groundhog Day in the raunchy teen comedy Premature, from first-time writer/director Dan Beers. Rated R for language and sexual themes, Premature is unafraid to push the boundaries of good taste in the pursuit of laughter.

Beers has assembled a dynamic and talented cast including native Texans John Karna, Alan Tudyk and Carlson Young (look for interviews with these three next week). Karna stars as Rob Crabbe, an average teenager who wakes up on the most important day of his senior year lying in a wet spot on his bed. The events of the day, including his Georgetown college interview with Jack Roth (Tudyk) and tutoring session with sexy vixen Angela (Young), play out until he finds himself in bed with Angela, prematurely climaxes and immediately finds himself again in his bed at home, starting the day over.

Cursed to continue repeating the events of the day, Rob tries to work out a solution with the help of his best friends Stanley (Craig Roberts) and Gabrielle (Katie Findlay). Karna's charisma and naturally keen comic timing help to overlook weaker moments of dialogue where the teens sometimes don't feel like authentic teens as much as people delivering adult lines. Some lines are followed with a touch too much dead silence, as if edited to allow for insertion of a laugh track, but after such stumbles the pace always picks back up and delivers genuine laughs.

SXSW Review: The Infinite Man

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The Infinite ManTime-travel movies can be so difficult to execute that few filmmakers attempt them. Fewer still can claim success. Of those, I've reserved the highest praise, citing as the only time-travel movie that "gets it right" by being internally self-consistent, playing by its own rules while still being entertaining and managing to surprise the audience, for Nacho Vigolondo's Time Crimes. Until now. Many might ask about Rian Johnson's hit Looper, which is a good film, I agree, but which in the end breaks the rules.

Like Time Crimes, The Infinite Man is a micro-budget sci-fi story with a cast of only three characters. They are Dean (Josh McConville), his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall), and her ex Terry (Alex Dimitriades), who is obsessed with Lana and wants her back.

In addition to being a brilliant crackerjack scientist, Dean is a control freak who can't be satisfied with anything less than perfection. On the anniversary of their first, perfect date, Dean and Lana return to the same location as he attempts to recreate it in every detail. Unfortunately, there are too many variables out of his control, including the sudden appearance of Terry, intent on regaining the love of Lana. After the date falls apart, Dean spends a year creating a time machine and thus begins a loop returning to the fateful weekend as he seeks to put things right.

The ensuing encounters with himself, with Lana, and with Terry, shot from different locations and angles, play out hilariously as the truth of the story is slowly revealed not just to the audience, but to Dean himself. Writer/director Hugh Sullivan's clever script explores the unhealthier aspects of relationships such as self-doubt, co-dependence, obsessiveness, and controlling behaviors metaphorically through the actions of his characters.

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