SXSW 2021 Day 3

March 19, 2021

SXSW 2021 Day 3

 This was my third and final day of movies at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) virtual festival. I’ve watched and reviewed 16 movies in 60 hours, and remarkably, there wasn’t one clunker in the bunch.

 

Day 3 for me included a documentary, a comedy, two dramas, and a horror film. Here’s a recap:

 

 

WITHOUT GETTING KILLED OR CAUGHT (documentary)

 Jerry Jeff Walker made the lyrics famous: “If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught”, but it was Guy Clark who wrote ‘em. Co-directors Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield put together a profile of legendary songwriter Clark, but it’s also an intimate look at an era, the challenges of the music industry, Clark’s enigmatic wife Susanna, and at their friendship with the great Townes Van Zandt.

The film is based on Susanna’s diaries and the biography written by co-director Saviano entitled, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark”. Most documentaries that focus on a musician spend the vast majority of time on the songs, but this is something quite different. Sure, the music is crucial to the story, but this is the saga of struggling artists and poets, and the unconventional and complicated relationships they formed. It’s more of a psychological character study than a tribute to the beautiful music.

Background on Guy and Susanna go back to each of their childhoods. We see family photos and videos, and learn Guy was brought up west Texas tough, while Susanna had a large family. Brought together by tragedy, their 40+ year relationship was built on art and a free-wheeling nature not uncommon to the times. Guy became best friends with songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and an unconventional triumvirate was the result when Townes and Susanna became spiritual soul mates.

Vince Gill, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell fill in some details of those early years, and more importantly provide perspective on the commitment to a specific type of songwriting that Guy held precious. There are also clips of interviews with Townes, and we learn just how difficult it was for Guy to achieve success. It came much easier for Susanna, who wrote #1 hit songs AND was an accomplished artist – her painting served as the cover of Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album.

Of course, Guy Clark ultimately achieved both admiration and success with his songs. Jerry Jeff put him on the map, but Grammy awards came later, as did lifetime achievement awards and best-selling albums. The film includes much of Susanna’s time with “TR”, which is what she called the tape recorder, so we eavesdrop on many conversations – both personal and musical. Clips of Guy’s appearances on Austin City Limits in 1977, 1981, and 1989 are a pleasure, but the later years are a bit more difficult. The most challenging part of the story is knowing that Susanna remained bedridden after Townes’ death in 1997. Guy passed a few years later: “Texas is callin’, callin’ me home.” With narration from Sissy Spacek (as Susanna), the film is a personal journey that we are privileged to take.

 

SWAN SONG (drama)

 It’s never too late. We’ve all heard the phrase, but is it accurate … at least mostly? Writer-director Todd Stephens met the real life Pat Pitsenbarger in a small town gay bar, and he turned that person into this engaging story by casting the great Udo Kier in the lead. When we first meet Pat, he’s living a life of daily drudgery in a nursing home. He’s a curmudgeon whose hobbies are folding (perfectly) the paper napkins he takes from the cafeteria, and sneaking a smoke when no one is looking. We also see how tenderly he treats an incapacitated neighbor. It’s not the last time we see his two sides.

Pat was once a renowned hairdresser in Sandusky, Ohio. When he is informed that a long-time former (wealthy) client has passed away, and her dying wish was for Pat to do her hair for the funeral, he sneaks out of the home and begins a road trip down memory lane. Despite Pat spending the time on foot, the film has the feel of a true road trip movie as he crosses paths with many folks – some new and some with ties to his previous life. One of his first stops is the graveyard to visit his life partner who died of AIDS. We realize Pat still grieves.

There is a hilarious stop at a convenience store as he tries to knock off the items on his shopping list for the project. Since he has no money, Pat depends on the kindness of others … and his own sticky fingers. As he makes his way through town, some folks remember him, while others remind him of how long he’s been gone and how much has changed. His house and business may be gone, but his memories remain.

Two folks from his past generate tremendous scenes. Pat confronts Dee Dee Dale (a reserved Jennifer Coolidge) who gets to tell her side of the story of their unpleasant business split so many years ago. Even better is a “conversation” in the park with his old friend Eunice (a superb Ira Hawkins). The two old friends toast the bygone days of their gay club, while also acknowledging the new world of the gay community. It’s a touching sequence.

But the most surprising portion of the film occurs at the funeral home, where Pat imagines a final chat with that recently deceased client, Rita Parker-Sloan. What a pleasant surprise (actually shock!) to see Linda Evans back on screen. She is terrific in her brief appearance and we’ve really missed her over the last 23 years. But this film belongs to Udo Kier, and he kills. Pat is known as “The Liberace of Sandusky” and Kier embraces all that entails. This is a sentimental story punctuated by a spirited performance – and a Shirley Bassey song!

 

HOW IT ENDS (comedy)

 We get glimpses of the meteor that’s speeding on a collision course with Earth, but no character ever points it out. In fact, most emit a chill vibe that corresponds to that of the film. The only exception is Liza. Played by Zoe Lister-Jones, Liza simply wants to get trashed and let the world end overnight … well after she finishes off her morning pancakes (at least a dozen) and glass of wine.  Liza’s only problem is Young Liza (Cailee Spaeny), her metaphysical younger self who pressures Liza to attend the Apocalypse Party being thrown by Mandy (Whitney Cummings).

In addition to attending the party, Young Liza persuades Liza to spend the day confronting her regrets. This includes meeting up separately with her divorced parents (Brad Whitford and Helen Hunt), as well as a former best friend (Olivia Wilde), and past boyfriends, including her one true love (Logan Marshall-Green). In fact, this trip down Regret Road provides a steady stream of stereotypical California flakes. This means none of the soul-searching ever goes very deep, but playing spot-the-funny-person is a win-win. None of the interactions seem to last more than 2-4 minutes, but it’s a blast seeing how many familiar faces pop up during Liza and Young Liza’s day of walking. I won’t name the others here so that you can enjoy each moment – some more than others.

The film is co-written and co-directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, and it’s one of the more entertaining ‘pandemic’ films so far. For me, the constant roll of quick vignettes never got old, but you should know that as good as the performances are from Lister-Jones and Spaeny, the soul-searching and self-discovery only skims the surface. Still, a chill End of the World party seems perfect, even if a 1980’s relic agreed to be a punchline.

 

VIOLET (drama)

 Justine Bateman’s first feature film as writer-director acts an education for men and a wake-up call for women. And it’s welcome and effective on both fronts. Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom”) stars as Violet, a film industry executive whose self-doubts and lack of confidence prevent her from every really feeling happiness. Her inner voice – she calls it “the committee” feeds her bad ju-ju and keeps her obsessed with safe decisions, rather than dynamic ones … both personally and professionally.

As an example, her inner voice (Justin Theroux) pushes her to date an older, boring film executive for the sake of her career, rather than her screenwriting life-long friend Red (Luke Bracey) who clearly thinks more highly of Violet than she does herself. Violet’s boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) purposefully belittles her which causes some of her staff to also show little respect. Violet does have some supporters who recognize the talent and strength within her, but of course, it’s Violet who must come to terms with the disconnect between achieving happiness and the way she makes choices.

We see flashbacks to Violet’s childhood and understand how the seeds of self-doubt were planted. The supporting cast is excellent and very deep, though some (Bonnie Bedelia for one) only appear briefly. Filmmaker Bateman uses on screen script to let us know what’s going on in Violet’s mind as it battles with her “committee”. It’s a trick that serves the purpose well. Some may recall the “Seinfeld” episode where George does “the opposite”. Well that sentiment serves Violet well and puts her on the road to recovery … and to silencing that darn committee. A terrific first feature from Ms. Bateman, and kudos for the closing credits which put the crew on camera.

 

VIOLATION (drama/horror)

 Not just another rape-revenge thriller, this film from co-writers and co-directors Dusty Manicinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer is one of the most brutal and unforgiving films I’ve seen in a while. Emotional pain, regret, bitterness, and compromise worm through every scene and every character.

It begins as a cabin in the woods story. Miriam (co-director Sims-Fewer) and Caleb (Obi Abili) have a strained relationship that appears headed towards a breaking point. They are meeting up with Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at his family cabin. There is an underlying tension that prevents the four from every being at ease with each other, though we only get bits and pieces at a time. To further force our concentration, the story is told in non-linear fashion, making it important to focus on hairstyles and details.

One evening by the campfire turns into a turning point in the film and acts as the before and after point. A primal and brutally violent sequence takes up close to half of the film, and it’s unlike anything I’ve previously seen on screen. The practical effects are next level, and Ms. Sims-Fewer is absolutely terrific throughout. A chilling use of music accompanies an odd combination of wolf-rabbit-psychopath, and the filmmakers use shots of nature as connective tissue in a world where sometimes we are the wolf and sometimes the rabbit. Certainly not a film for mass audiences, but it will surely find an appreciative following.

 


ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018)

December 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Earlier this year, the documentary RBG (co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) was a film festival and box office hit, helping turn 85 year old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into a celebrity and cult icon, complete with best-selling “Notorious RBG” t-shirts and her own action figure. That documentary allowed us the rare opportunity to hear directly from a currently sitting Justice, and just about every viewer came away in awe – regardless of one’s political affiliations. Now, a few months later, we get the story of her younger years in a (loving) script written by Ms. Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Steipleman.

The film opens with a lone woman in a dress engulfed by a sea of young men in conservative business suits marching up the steps on day one of Harvard Law School in 1956. Inside the oak paneled hall, the school’s dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) discusses what it means to be a ‘Harvard man’ and how this is only the sixth year women have been admitted. As he speaks, young Ruth (Felicity Jones) glances around the room at the (only) 8 other female students. At a later reception for the females, Dean Griswold asks each to stand and explain why they are worthy of taking a man’s spot in the class. It’s our first (not last) example of the sexism obstacles of the time – much different than those of today, where women procure more higher education slots than men.

By this time, Ruth and Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) are both Columbia graduates, have been married for a couple of years, and are raising their first child, Jane. When Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth covers his classes and hers, is mother to young Jane, and also caregiver to a recovering Marty. Of course, her husband recovers and goes on to be a highly successful tax attorney on Wall Street, and their marriage continues until his death in 2010.

But this is Ruth’s story, and her strength is on display. As uplifting as it is to see that Marty was an immensely supportive husband, it’s deflating to see how a brilliant woman – number one in her class – is so disrespected during this era that she can’t even find a job at a law firm. For one committed to doing, Ruth accepts a job teaching instead. Her time as a professor at Columbia is spent encouraging students to explore the inequities of the law when it comes to men and women. In fact, it’s 1970 when Ruth and Marty work their only case together. A Colorado man, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), is denied a tax deduction for the caregiver expenses in caring for his sick mother. By law, the deduction is only allowed for female caregivers, and this gives Ruth her first taste of ‘doing’.

It’s at this point, where Kathy Bates appears as civil liberties lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, and Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf, the ACLU Legal Director. Adding spice to Ruth’s and Marty’s life is their teenage daughter Jane (a very good Cailee Spaeny) who is quite headstrong in her own beliefs. The scenes in the Appellate Court are the film’s best, as is the Moot Court sequence – though we do wish more time had been devoted to the prep work and details for the court arguments.

Director Mimi Leder is known mostly for her TV work, and she delivers the story of an amazing woman in an easily accessible manner for mass audiences. It’s an approach that will hopefully allow many young people (yes, especially women) to gain a better understanding of what this woman went through and fought for during the decades before she became the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court.  Two takeaways here are that Ruth Ginsburg is a superhero and pioneer of social change, and also that a marriage of equal partners carries great power. Her cameo as the film’s final shot, leaves no doubt that RBG is no longer concerned about which dress will make her look like a “Harvard man”.

watch the trailer:


ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

February 12, 2016

zoolander2 Greetings again from the darkness. Here comes yet another write up where I am out of step with the majority of film critics. While most are heaping hatred on it for idiocy and self-obsession, my response is … isn’t that the point of a sequel to Zoolander, itself a tribute to idiocy and self-obsession? Maybe the difference stems from my not being a big fan of the 2001 original. Granted, the sub-plot of child labor from the original was (and remains) a real world issue, while this one is fuzzy-focused on a plot to kill the beautiful people in hopes of finding the fountain of youth … less real world tragedy and more like holding a mirror up to society’s insecurities.

The fashion industry was skewered in the original, but couldn’t wait to embrace this sequel. In the 15 years since that first Zoolander, a symbiotic relationship has formed between TV – Movies – Music – Fashion. The lines are blurred now that actors have become models and models are acting. TV shows are built around fashion and fashion shows boost music. And all of these elements are tied into the explosion of social media outlets. The greatest impact yet is probably the fact that most every person has a camera (phone) attached to them at all times and in every environment … we have a citizenry of selfie-taking models.

What can’t be denied is that the sequel is a smorgasbord of celebrity cameos (some might call it overkill). There are times the cameos pop up so fast that it’s challenging to keep up. Spotting the celebs, following the sight gags and catching the one-liners … that’s the tripod on which writer/director/star Ben Stiller has built his Zoolander second home. Though it’s not as quotable as the original, the production value is much improved. Never is this more evident than the slick looking opening chase scene that sets the stage for national narcissism being attacked for the next 90 minutes.

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson return as male models Derek Zoolander and Hansel, though when we first see them, they have been in years-long hiding … Derek claiming to live as a “hermit crab”. The film begins by catching us up on why they are in hiding (it’s related to Derek’s Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good), and what’s up with others like Mugatu (Will Ferrell), Derek’s wife Matilda (Christine Taylor), and Billy Zane (Billy Zane). The gag is that Derek and Hansel are now “old and lame” … literally out of fashion in fashion.

As with most comedies, it’s best to avoid the trailer and any details or punchlines before walking into the theatre. You need only know that the old favorite characters are still here and an army of new ones (including Penelope Cruz and Kristen Wiig) arrive – some for a few scenes, others for only a few seconds. Satire is still the name of the game and the biggest fashion icons are front and center: Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino, Anna Wintour and “both Wangs”. A big assist goes to Kiefer Sutherland who joins in the fun of poking fun at his own image. There’s even a jab at celebrity political endorsements with the line “She’s hot. I trust her.”

Justin Theroux is back as Stiller’s co-writer and also plays a role in the sub-plot involving Derek’s son, and the script proudly plays homage to the original (as it should) while still moving into contemporary themes (as it should). So “Relax” (nod to Frankie) and take in the fun. It’s the type of fun akin to riding a roller coaster … fun while it lasts, and over when it’s over. To paraphrase Derek, it’s a ‘really really ridiculously’ good time.

No trailer posted (it’s for your own good!)

 

 


IRON MAN 2 (2010)

May 9, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. No secret that I really enjoyed the first Iron Man movie a couple of years ago. For 2, we get the return of key players: Robert Downey, jr as Tony Stark, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, and Jon Favreau in the director chair. We also get an onslaught of new players: Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, Scarlett Johansson as Natalie/Natasha/Black Widow, Garry Shandling as Senator Stern and Don Cheadle (replacing Terence Howard) as War Machine.

Onslaught may be the best word I can use to describe the film. It is an onslaught to the senses. There are so many characters – both good guys and bad. There are so many explosions, fights and booms that we resist the urge to blink. There is so much overlapping and oddly paced dialogue that we strain to fill in the blanks. And what of the inside jokes and “advertising” for future Avengers fun? OK, maybe “Fun” is the key word, not onslaught. These characters are a blast (pun, slightly intended). Watching a creepy Mickey Rourke plot revenge in the Russian darkness is terrific. Sam Rockwell chewing scenery is not to be missed. Garry Shandling’s snarky senator is a hoot, especially at the end. And I have been surfing the net all night searching for a suitcase sized Iron Man suit. OK, not really … but that was super cool.

I’ve got it!  “An onslaught of fun!” The great and talented Justin Theroux was brought in to script the multitude of players and story lines … he must be a master juggler as none get cheated in their screen time. Even Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury is given a much heavier workload than in part one – setting the stage for his NINE scheduled film appearances as Mr. Fury.

The film is huge and spectacular, but falls just short of the first one for a single reason. The wow of discovery can only be had once. That’s not a knock on this one, but timing is crucial. Must also mention the brilliance of Robert Downey, Jr who seems born to play Tony Stark. Of course, the brilliance of Mr. Downey is that he always seems born to play his roles. He is a great actor … check his ability to spout wise cracking one-liners and then mix in a couple of actually tender moments with Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Not many actors could do that effectively. He pulls it off seamlessly.

What really matters is that it’s a fun trip to theatre. Don’t expect this year’s Best Picture winner. Expect to laugh and be visually wowed. I certainly was.  If you liked the first one, chances are good that you will appreciate this well made sequel.