SXSW

SXSW Review: Creep

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Creep

Jason Blum must be one of the busiest men in Hollywood. With 36 credited projects already, and another 23 currently in production, Blum has proven himself not just hardworking, but also with a keen eye for horror films that use the simplest elements to reach the heart of what unsettles us and play on our innermost fears. Mark Duplass is a veteran of the mumblecore genre, which eschews narrative scripts and focuses on development of character and natural dialogue.

Put these guys together with writer/director Patrick Brice, and you get Creep, a microbudget hackle-raiser as scary as Paranormal Activity.

Brice stars as Aaron Franklin (one wonders if this is a tribute to Franklin Barbecue), who answers a Craigslist ad placed by Josef (Duplass) for a videographer to spend a day shooting his life. The creepiness begins immediately when Aaron arrives to find that nobody appears to be home, and the house and grounds have an ominous feel.

As Aaron prepares to leave, Josef silently appears in a startling reveal that sets the tone for the rest of the day. Josef, with his habit of appearing suddenly, often with an accompanying "rawr" or stomping thump, delights in keeping Aaron -- as well as the audience -- off-balance. Each scare is immediately explained away by the apologetic Josef, whose off-putting actions sound almost completely reasonable when taken in context.

During a Q&A with Brice and Duplass following the Creep premiere, they described the process in which the film evolved as they would shoot and edit scenes, show them to friends and then return to the rented cabin for additional shooting, bringing the script revision process off paper and into the camera. They populated the set with as many lamps as possible to reduce the need for extra lighting equipment, which also allowed for a natural, believable look for the handheld cinematography.

SXSW Review: Before I Disappear

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Before I Disappear

Shawn Christensen's 2012 short film Curfew was a film-festival darling, winning 15 awards including a 2013 Oscar. I haven't seen Curfew, but certainly want to if it's as good as the feature-length version of the same story, Before I Disappear.

Christensen's debut feature is quirky, but I mean that in a good way. A genre-bending mix of family drama, thriller, love story and surreal fantasy, Before I Disappear is the dark story of Richie (Christensen), a broke and depressed drug addict adrift in New York City. He spends his time hanging out in seedy clubs and earning a meager living as a janitor. His job only compounds his depression when he cleans a restroom and finds the body of an overdose victim, a beautiful woman who reminds him of his dead girlfriend.

One afternoon, a phone call interrupts Richie's halfhearted attempt to kill himself. Long estranged from his family, he's surprised that the call is from his wealthy and far more functional sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), who asks him to take care of her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), for a few hours after school. A series of bizarre events keeps Maggie busy all night and forces Richie and Sophia to spend the night wandering the streets of New York and visiting Richie's favorite haunts. (They're not places any sane person would take a child.)

SXSW 2014: Enthralled by 'Last Hijack'

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Still from Last Hijack

Before I attend film festivals, I sketch out an overloaded schedule and give myself multiple options, sometimes based more on where and when a movie is playing than the subject matter of the film itself.  Monday, I had mainly chosen to see Last Hijack because it was playing at Alamo Drafthouse Village. I figured the doc would be a good counterbalance to Cesar Chavez, and I could get my third Alamo pretzel of the fest.*  A friend happened to tweet the trailer for the documentary/animation earlier that day, and it looked terrific. 

The screening wasn't jam-packed, but most seats were full as we watched the real-life drama unfold.  Filmmakers Femke Wolting and former Austinite Tommy Pallotta depict some months in the life of Mohamed, a Somalian man whose tragic life has eventually led him to piracy hijackings at sea. He hopes to marry a young woman, but her family (and his parents, as well) want him to quit his piracy. He plans one last hijack to make money for him and his new wife to live in style. 

SXSW Review: The Dog

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The Dog

Drafthouse Films is building a strong slate of quality documentaries, and The Dog is a fine addition to that collection.

Filmmakers Allison Berg and Francois Keraudren, who brought their previous film Witches in Exile to SXSW in 2004, have completed an 11-year project to document the life of John Wojtowicz, aka "The Dog," who became famous in 1971 for robbing a Chase Manhattan bank in order to pay for gender reassignment surgery for his lover. The event served as inspiration for the 1975 Sidney Lumet film Dog Day Afternoon.

Beginning with his early years, The Dog covers a journey to Vietnam and a return to post-war Stonewall New York during the birth of the gay rights movement, revealing a fascinating character who refuses to play by any rules but his own. Wojtowicz is a force of nature, who describes himself as "an angel with horns," who does not drink, smoke, or gamble, reserving sex as his only vice.

Through Wojtowicz's eyes we see the Robin Hood story of the failed robbery attempt, the aftermath of his trial, his time in prison, and ultimate rejection by Liz Eden, his lover. Presented as a monster in the news media of the day and largely forgotten since, Wojtowicz presents a charismatic, likable figure in footage which covers his last years, and well before the end of the film, I found myself wishing I could meet this charming scoundrel.

The Dog is humorous, fascinating, and slightly tragic, especially in terms of the fallout for Wojtowicz's family. The loyalty of his mother as well as his former wives serves as evidence of his underlying goodness or of the cult of personality he would build around himself.

You can decide for yourself at the remaining screening tonight -- Thursday, March 13 at 9:30 pm at Alamo Village. If you miss it, The Dog was picked up by Drafthouse Films and is scheduled for an August 2014 release. I sat down with Berg and Keraudren for a few minutes after the film, so look for that conversation following the fest.

SXSW Review: Faults

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Faults still

I've never been one for films about cults. I suppose it's because they're such a taboo subject within our society, not to mention they flat out give me the creeps, I've never gone out of my way to watch films on the topic. And no, not even when people gave me the nickname "Martha Marcy May Marcelena." But something caught my attention in reading about Riley Stearns' debut feature film, Faults.

The story starts with a deadbeat guy getting kicked out of a restaturant. He is trying to use a free meal voucher, but the manager knows he already used it the night before. The guy downs his food, then tries to eat all of the condiments on the table. After a physical struggle with the manager, he is thrown out of the restaurant. This is Ansel (Leland Orser), our film's protagonist. What I later realized I enjoyed so much about this intro is that it sets up the main character perfectly: a washed up, once-famous public speaker who will do what he can to con people, even for a free meal.

SXSW Review: Two Step

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Two Step

For decades, law enforcement agencies have been warning people of a common phone scam: An elderly person receives a phone call from someone pretending to be the person's grandchild or other family member. The caller says he's desperate for money, and asks the victim to deposit money in a bank account. This scam is often successful; the elderly victims, feeling lonely and forgotten, want to help their family members and are easily conned.

Normally, the victims lose money but never meet the con artists or suffer any physical harm. But in the stylish thriller Two Step, the scam turns deadly and personal.

In the Austin-made film, career criminal Webb (James Landry Hébert) is part of ring of phone scammers, making his calls from prison. When he's released, he's ready to continue his criminal ways and reunite with his girlfriend and fellow scammer, Amy (Ashley Spillers). But the reunion doesn't go as planned. Fed up with Webb's physical and emotional abuse, Amy leaves him the minute he returns home, taking their ill-gotten cash with her. Even worse, he owes $10,000 to the ringleader, Duane (Jason Douglas), who banishes him from the ring for his erratic and violent ways. But Webb is determined to repay the money and make amends with his boss.

SXSW Review: No No: A Dockumentary

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no no a dockumentary

No No: A Dockumentary was directed by Austinite Jeffrey Radice and came about with much local support and funding (including a grant from Austin Film Society), so it was no surprise that it made its SXSW premiere to a big and welcoming crowd at the Paramount last Saturday.

The film explores the life of Dock Ellis, a Major League baseball player known for his talent as a pitcher as well as for the memorable feat of pitching a no-hitter (aka the "no no" of the title) while high on LSD. He also played at a time rife with racial tension and when illicit but quietly accepted drug use was rampant among players -- and rather than remaining a passive bystander in terms of baseball politics, Ellis was vocal and persistent in sharing his opinions.

SXSW Review: Stage Fright

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Stage Fright opening scene

This year's SXSW Film Festival has been chock-full of dramatic, emotional features and compelling documentaries, many of which will bring critics to tears, win awards and be remembered for stirring performances.

And then there's Stage Fright.

Stage Fright is the movie you see after one too many features about the fragility of twentysomething love, or docs about serious political issues that have you worried about ever driving again, or eating corn, or using fountain pens. Stage Fright is playing again at SXSW at 11:15 am today, and what I advise is that you stop reading this review and head down to Alamo Ritz right now and get in the line, since it's in the small theater.

It's true that at film festivals, comedies of any worth get undue praise because they are such a relief after weightier films. But Stage Fright is great goofy fun that will hold up in your living room, especially if you invite your musical-theater-loving friends to watch it with you. Writer-director Jerome Sable previously brought us the very funny short horror-musical The Legend of Beaver Dam in 2010 (I notice some of you are rushing out to your cars now and pondering downtown parking), and sustains that level of hilarity in his feature-film debut. 

SXSW Review: The Great Invisible

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Roosevelt Harris talking to a woman in The Great Invisible

April 20, 2014 will be the fourth anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which caused a spill of an estimated 176 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. This horrific incident seriously altered the lives of the men who worked on the rig -- and the families of the 11 who lost their lives -- as well as the communities who once survived off jobs based on healthy waters in the Gulf. In The Great Invisible, director Margaret Brown (The Order of Myths, Be Here to Love Me) explores the aftereffects of the explosion and oil spill from multiple viewpoints.

Doug Brown, the chief mechanic for Transocean on the Deepwater Horizon (owned by Transocean, but leased by BP), gave the director some video he filmed on the rig before the disastrous night. He and another victim of the explosion, along with their wives, talk about their experience that night and their current fragile existence.

Keith Jones, father of one of the men killed in the explosion, comments on America's "insatiable thirst for gasoline" and follows the BP/Halliburton/Transocean trial to New Orleans. Brown gives these interviews intimacy, while framing them against the larger issues of America's dependence on oil and our government's participation through oil leases.

SXSW 2014: Adventures of a Wristbandit

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The life of a "wristbandit" (or "wristbandito," as Jette calls them) can be a lonely one. While your friends are getting into the coveted ACC film panels, staggering around 6th Street wandering into parties and snagging good seats at the Paramount Theatre, you're left to wonder if the theater capacity will cut off right before you after you waited for 90 minutes in line in the freezing cold rain.

Okay, so... Maybe that only happened one time.  But my first year as a SXSW wristband wearer has been nothing short of exciting and filled with unexpected surprises.

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