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.

 


SNOWDEN (2016)

September 15, 2016

snowden Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve never really understood the artistic benefit to filming a biography after a spectacular documentary on that person has already been produced, made the rounds, and racked up awards. But then, I guess the point has little to do with art, and more to do with economics (documentaries are historically a money losing venture). Renowned director Oliver Stone brings us the story of Edward Snowden just two years after filmmaker Laura Poitrus won the Oscar for Best Documentary for her Citizenfour.

Much of what Ms. Poitrus documented in real time at the Mira Hotel in Japan is re-enacted here as one of the three core storylines in Mr. Stone’s film. To his credit, he fills in much of the backstory and Snowden’s resume by starting with a failed attempt at joining Special Forces (tumbling off the top bunk is automatic disqualification if it shatters one’s leg).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt mimics Snowden’s low key mannerism and measured vocals, while also fiddling with his eyeglasses during key moments. As a sought-after role for an actor, Snowden ranks a few rungs below, say Howard Hughes or Franklin Roosevelt or most any other person who has had an impact on America … just not much personality to work with – though his actions have created some of the most interesting discussions over the past few years.

Joining Snowden in the hotel room are Melissa Leo as Ms. Poitrus, Zachary Quinto as journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Tom Wilkinson showing off a Scottish accent as journalist (from The Guardian) Ewen MacAskill. The second storyline takes us through the initial recruitment and subsequent rise through the CIA and NSA, as we see how Snowden continually uncovered more about how the government was spying on citizens. His interactions along the way – such as Rhys Ifans as his CIA mentor Corbin O’Brian and Nic Cage as disgruntled agent Hank Forrester – provide a spark of energy on screen. The third piece of the pie revolves around Snowden and his politically-polar-opposite girlfriend Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley.

Since it’s an Oliver Stone movie (he co-wrote the screenplay with Kiernan Fitzgerald), we fully expect his political views to be on full display. It’s clear he is sympathetic and fully supportive of Snowden’s actions, and does his best to paint him as a patriot who had no choice but to go public with his belief that the spying had nothing to do with terrorism, but was instead a form of social and economic control. Based on the books “The Time of the Octopus” by Anatoly Kutcherena and “The Snowden Files” by Luke Harding, the film portrays Snowden as increasingly disenchanted and disappointed, beginning in 2003 and moving through 2013.

Stone’s feel for visuals come into play as we track Snowden through Virginia, Geneva, Hawaii, Japan and finally Russia. Along the route, familiar faces pop up in almost every new scene – Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Lakeith Stanfield (Short Term 10), Logan Marshall-Green, Ben Chaplin, Ben Schnetzer, and Joely Richardson. There are a couple of sequences in which Stone applies his stamp … a party with drones hovering overhead (until they aren’t), and an impactful full wall Skype with Rhys Ifans’ face looming larger than Snowden’s entire body.

Whistleblower or turncoat? Hero or traitor? Most people fall pretty clearly on one side of the debate, and there’s no doubt where Stone stands. Just prior to the voice of Peter Gabriel over the closing credits and clips of the real Ed Snowden, there is a fancy edit where Stone shows him at his computer in his current home in Russia. Stone’s movie makes a nice companion piece to Citizenfour, but if you are only going to see one, choose the documentary.

watch the trailer:

 


PROMETHEUS (2012)

June 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Ridley Scott bounds back into the sci-fi genre 30 plus years after his two classics: Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). Since then, he has avoided sci-fi and had some ups (Gladiator, American Gangster) and some downs (too many to list). Of course, in the film world, one need only create a single masterpiece to be forever worshiped … and the Alien lovers have always held out hope their master would return. Despite the sly marketing approach, Mr. Scott has delivered a prequel that should keep the geeks happy, while also having the “wow” factor to generate multiple viewings.

In the year 2089 we witness an archaeologist played by Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) discover an ancient cave gallactic map. With remarkable efficiency found only in the private sector, four years later, the Prometheus space ship is landing on the moon depicted in the drawings. It’s lofty mission is to discover the origin of life. The crew make-up is almost identical to the crew in Alien, only this time we get an ice queen corporate director, played by Charlize Theron, to emphasize corporate greed and lust for power, and the lack of love for science.

Once the ship lands, we pretty much know what the search crew will find. That doesn’t ruin the impact of the images. The strength of the movie comes from the visuals and effects. We never doubt that we are in a far away galaxy or that the aliens are real. This is one of the RARE times that the 3D version is recommended. Despite the dulled images caused by the glasses, this one was actually filmed in 3D and some of the effects really pop.

There will be much debate over this film because it looks effectively creepy and fascinating … downright phenomenal. However, it has too many of what I call “stupid movie character moments”. You know, those times when a character does or says something that just makes no sense – other than to create an opportunity for the filmmaker? There are plenty of those present here. The script is co-written by Jon Spaihts and “Lost” guru Damon Lindelof. The overall idea is brilliant and worth pursuing, however, the details and gaps are quite disappointing. We know there will be minor characters sacrificed in the name of creating fear in the survivors, but couldn’t we have more than one strong character? The Noomi Rapace character has much in common with Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley, but the others here are pretty generic.

 Idris Elba plays the ship’s captain, Guy Pearce plays Peter Weyland, the old man funding the mission and seeking immortality, and Logan Marshall-Green plays Rapace’s partner and lover. The only other character of interest is Michael Fassbender‘s android David. He models himself after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, right down to the golden locks. Android technology has come a long way since Alien and David can be quite a wry smart-ass.

In the end, the sci-fi geeks will decide if this one deserves to live on, but for me, despite the breath-taking technological effects, it’s not worthy of the “classic” label. It was kind of humorous to hear a score that bears an uncanny resemblance at times to the iconic score of Inception. It seems that film’s impact is nothing short of never-ending.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Alien OR you are fan of sci-fi and special effects

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer a coherent story line and strong characters

watch the trailer:

 


DEVIL (2010)

September 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. For those of us who enjoy trying to make sense of the unexplainable, M. Night Shyamalan is one filmmaker for whom we always hold out hope. Wisely backing away from the director’s chair this time, Mr. Shyamalan created the story and produced the film. While not extraordinary, it is one of his best in quite awhile.

The beauty of the story is its simplicity. It is actually presented to us in the form of folk legend through the narrator. Basically, the devil sometimes takes human form and proceeds to steal souls … often in the process, innocent (and not so innocent) people are killed. Here five seemingly random people end up in the same elevator and all hell breaks loose (literally). The detective called to the scene is battling his own internal demons and, of course, that plays a major role in how the story develops and ends.

A mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), a young woman (Bojana Novakic from Drag Me To Hell), an old woman (Jenny O’Hara), a security guard (Bokeem Woodbine) and a mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend) are joined together in the claustrophobic nightmare of a stuck elevator. One by one, each is affected. All the while, distrust abounds. Chris Messina plays the talented detective trying to rescue them and fruitlessly apply logic to the unexplained happenings occurring right before his eyes.

The film begins with an extended, disorienting upside-down view of downtown Philly, and then proceeds to take us through some unusual camera angles into the building, down the elevator shaft and into the lobby. This is our initial intro to the unlucky five. It’s a very interesting start to an entertaining thriller.

The director is John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) and he does an effective job of creating fear within the confined space of the elevator. He manages to create camera angles despite the lack of space. The use of the security camera and booth is brilliant and allows the viewer to be both inside and outside … both are frightening in their own way. Welcome back, Mr. Shyamalan!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: You can suspend disbelief and enjoy a creepy thriller OR if just the thought of being stuck in an elevator makes you queasy and weak in the knees.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  Your idea of a great weekend is a documentary festival OR if just the thought of being stuck in an elevator makes you queasy and weak in the knees.