The last 48 hours at SXSW has been fun but exhausting, as I saw 4 movies each day. One could technically do 6 a day without too much difficulty, but that would mean foregoing food and sleep, since there would be no time to eat (between the waiting in line and running from venue to venue), and the last screening would start at midnight. So 4 is my max, and even that is tough (though, again, fun). So here are my (brief) thoughts on the 8 films I saw on Wednesday and Thursday (they must be brief, because I have to run off and see 3 more films today, for a total of 21 over 7 days). Please excuse any typos I may have missed, and feel free to email me a note letting me know which ones you’ve noticed.
Wednesday, March 12:
Rubber Soul (Jon Lefkovitz, 2013)
This was an interesting – if not entirely successful – recreation of two interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono: the one in 1970, with Jann Wenner, of Rolling Stone, and the other in 1980, with David Sheff, of Playboy. There are the occasional flashes of archival film, photos and audio, but otherwise the entire movie is composed of reenactments, with actors playing Lennon, Ono, Wenner and Sheff. A title card at the start of the film informs us that all words spoken are from the recorded historical record (a very similar technique was used in the Allen Ginsberg reenactment documentary Howl). Is this a documentary, a narrative biopic, a hybrid of both? I guess that categorization matters as far as film-festival awards go, but it certainly shouldn’t matter to the audience.
I will say, though, that if you’re going to make a film about such an iconic figure as Lennon, it’s not a good idea to remind us of what the actual man looked and sounded like. Every time we return, after the brief shots, to the poor actor (Joseph Bearor) playing Lennon, it takes a moment to readjust. That said, the film is by no means a failure – it held my interest throughout – and I was intrigued by the conceit. We seamlessly cut back and forth between 1970 and 1980, and then get a brief reenactment of Lennon in 1964 at the very end, all the while learning a lot about the intellectual vibrancy and contradictions of one intriguing man.
Ping Pong Summer (Michael Tully, 2014)
Set in 1985, in Ocean City, Maryland, Ping Pong Summer is a fun nostalgic trip to the world of my adolescence (and that of the director). It’s a light-hearted (and, to be honest, lightweight) coming-of-age story about a boy becoming a man, finding himself, and falling in love for the first time. If it’s a familiar story – and it is – it at least offers the sweet pleasures of meticulous period details and fine performances by all involved. John Hannah, Lea Thompson (she of many 1980s teen movies, herself), Susan Sarandon and Amy Sedaris, among others, are around to lend some gravitas and humor (if that’s too much of a paradox) to the proceedings, and a good time is had by all.
Hellion (Kat Candler, 2014)
This is a tough movie, based on a short film of the same title that writer/director Kat Candler made in 2012 (which I haven’t seen). It tells the story of a fractured family – broken by a mother’s death and a father’s alcoholic grieving – struggling to rebuild itself as the eldest son, Jacob (a terrific Josh Wiggins) slides into delinquency. Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis play the father and aunt, and both give strong and heartfelt performances. The movie definitely earns it’s cathartic final moments, and if along the way there are a few narrative touches that don’t quite work, it is still a film of great power, and well worth watching.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
I was very excited to see this, since I generally enjoy Jarmusch films, and have great affection for the two central performers, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. I admit, however, that I had trouble staying awake after the first hour (I rallied and resisted the sweet bliss of unconsciousness, however), since Jarmusch films are generally not known for their brisk narrative pace, and this was, after all, my final film of the day (the screening began at 9:30pm). It is a beautiful movie, crafted with loving care and great cinematic intelligence. Underneath the surface pleasures of the visual aesthetics and two brilliant lead performances, however, there is not much there (which, as much as I like Jarmusch, is a common problem I have with his films). The woman I sat next to at the screening called it “elegiacally empty,” which I thought was a lovely way to describe the film. Then again, the life of a vampire would, in many ways, be just that: how else to describe immortality?
Swinton and Hiddleston play vampire lovers – the one living in Detroit, the other in Tangiers – who get by on blood that they purchase on the black market in their respective cities. Events will conspire to disrupt their carefully constructed lives – yes, however slow the pace of the movie, there is some actual plot – and bring them together, but the joy of the movie is less in these story details than in the production design and slowly spinning camera movements that place us squarely inside the disorienting vertigo of the eternity of existential anguish.
Thursday, March 13:
DamNation (Ben Knight/Travis Rummel, 2014)
This is a powerful documentary about the excessive construction of dams in the United States over the last 100 years, and how disruptive they have been to the environment, and to the life cycles of certain aquatic species (salmon, especially). The directors track the evolution of the movement to demolish dams, since many of them no longer provide electrical power as efficiently as other means (wind, solar, etc.), and restore our nation’s waterways. Filled with gorgeous cinematography and moving interviews (hydro industry representatives did not, for the most part, agree to participate), the film persuasively makes the case that the time has come for a serious re-examination of all the dams in the country. Some should probably remain, but many should come down. A must-see movie.
Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)
Michael Fassbender, as the title character, spends most of Frank wearing a large papier-mâché head, and this visual conceit intrigued me enough that I really wanted to see the movie (knowing nothing else about it). I had heard mixed reactions to the film throughout SXSW, and now I understand why so many people liked the film, and so many people did not: half of the film is brilliant, while the other half is … not. Simple! To break it down – all of the scenes in Ireland are marked by cinematic genius, but once the film shifts to America, the movie becomes almost pedestrian.
Frank is about a rock band fronted by a man with a serious mental illness who copes with his madness by quite literally showing a different face to the world. Frank is also a bit of a musical prodigy, and his insanity and talent attract a group of similarly unstable musicians. Into this bizarre world comes Domhnall Gleeson – an actor I am quickly beginning to find tiresome and wish would stop being cast in lead roles – a paragon of normality and mediocrity, who is both drawn to Frank and his entourage and yet repelled by their rejection of the conventions of normal behavior. In the first half of the movie, as the band rehearses and then records what is to be a major album for them, the film flirts with greatness, examining the meanings of art and insanity, and the potential connection between the two, without being too obvious in its intentions. But then, once the album is recorded, the band is invited to America (to play at the SXSW music festival, no less!), and the earlier subtlety that was on display vanishes. Obvious dialogue and clumsy dichotomies – art vs. mediocrity, sanity vs. insanity, etc. – take over the script, and I lost interest. The final scene somewhat redeems the film, but the result is a very mixed bag, indeed. I would still recommend, however, for the first half, alone.
Joe (David Gordon Green, 2014)
Joe is a powerful showcase for both Nicholas Cage and Tye Sheridan (who so impressed in last year’s Mud). It’s a movie that examines male anger and identity in a small Texas town. Joe (Cage) is a hard-drinking small-business owner who, by the standards of the community, is relatively successful. He has a serious problem with rage, however, and we get hints throughout the film about things he’s done. We know he’s been in jail for assaulting a police officer, yet he’s also friends with the sheriff, and is often referred to as a good man (and he is, mostly). Into his orbit comes Gary, a young drifter whose father is even more of a vicious alcoholic than is Joe. The film is brutal, with scenes of extreme violence, yet the real violence and terror lie within Joe’s own struggles. Will he hold his demons at bay long enough to help Gary overcome the beak future that awaits him? The stakes are high, and the film delivers. But much of it is hard to watch.
Fort Tilden (Sarah-Violet Bliss/Charles Rogers)
Fort Tilden is the 2014 SXSW Narrative Jury Prize Winner, and I do not understand why. There were far better films on the docket. It’s a comedy about two whiny and self-involved 20-something friends, Harper and Allie, who decide to take a day off and head to the beach to join two boys they met the night before at a party. Getting to the beach proves harder than they thought, however, as they run into many unforeseen obstacles and mishaps. Their greatest obstacle, however, is their own stupidity, entitlement and arrogance. This sounds like a wonderful conceit, actually, but don’t be fooled, as the dialogue never rises above the level of the characters’ own vacuity. I will admit that I found the opening funny, but as the film progressed my laughter vanished. I noticed that the audience around me – a diverse group of people of all ages – had similarly gone (mostly) quiet, as well. To be avoided at all costs.