I have continued to enjoy my visit to SXSW, although I found myself exhausted yesterday (Tuesday), and took the morning off. There’s just so much to do here! And now that the music portion of the festival has begun, I’m beginning to wish I’d paid for access to that part of the week, as well. But then I wouldn’t be able to see as many films . . .
Monday, March 10:
I got up early to wait in the SXXPress line an hour before they start dispensing tickets (9 am). Being a badge holder does not guarantee entrance to a film. It merely guarantees you a good chance of getting in if you show up an hour or more (depending on the popularity of a given movie) before the screening starts. An SXXPress pass guarantees you a spot if you show up 30 minutes before the screening. Badge holders are allowed two of them a day, but the passes for the big-name films go quickly. It’s certainly possible to get in to the headline events without an SXXPress pass, but it requires a greater investment of one’s time. So the best strategy is to wake up early and get in line for the two films you feel you absolutely must see that day, and then take your chances with the rest. And that’s what I did on Monday, since the two films I wanted to see had big names attached to them: Cesar Chavez and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
This was also a fascinating (and extremely tiring) day because I spent a lot of time doing things that were part of the “interactive” component of the festival. I decided to attend three related-yet-separate presentations – what I call the Edward Snowden trifecta: Barton Gellman, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald. To be honest, the journalists Gellman and Greenwald were both more interesting to hear than Snowden, himself, who was on a video feed from Moscow routed through 7 different secure servers – a system that resulted in extremely choppy video and mostly bad audio – since they had a better sense of the historical context of NSA surveillance, but Snowden’s appearance was moderated by Ben Wizner and Chris Soghoian of the ACLU, and those guys were worth seeing in and of themselves. Even if you think Snowden is a traitor and a spy, it is hard to argue in favor of increased surveillance of the populace by our government, and citizens of all ideological stripes should be grateful that there is an organization like the ACLU defending our basic constitutional rights.
And now on to the movies.
Before I Disappear (Shawn Christensen, 2014)
Shawn Christensen won the 2013 Oscar for Best Live Action Short for his film Curfew, and now he has adapted it into a feature. That earlier film was not my favorite of the nominees that year (I preferred Death of a Shadow), but it was the next-best film of the bunch, and both darkly comic and poignant at the same time. It told the story of a suicidally depressed drug addict who decides to take his own life by slashing his wrists and sitting in a bathtub full of warm water. As he lies there, awaiting the mercy of death, his phone rings, and he answers it. It’s his long-estranged sister, and she needs him to watch her daughter that day. A few bandages later, and Richie (Christensen) is on his way for an odyssey that will grant him some level of redemption and hope.
Before I Disappear is the same story, only expanded, and I must admit that I preferred it as a short. Both Christensen and Fatima Ptacek (Richie’s niece) reprise their roles – which is good, as they are both very strong – but the additional details and adventures that pad the story do not make it any more interesting. In fact, they diffuse the power of the original by spreading the plot too thinly over 90 minutes. That said, if one hasn’t seen the original, there is much to like in the twisted and dreamlike comedy of the mise-en-scène and the fine performances (Emmy Rossum is quite good as the sister – she was not in the short). I just wish Christensen had left well enough alone and chosen a different subject for his feature debut.
Cesar Chavez (Diego Luna, 2014)
The actor Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También, Milk), now a director, as well (this is his third film, and second narrative feature), has crafted the story of the late labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez with a fair amount of respect and wit, but without a lot of energy. The best part of the screening was the Q&A afterwards – attended by Luna, Michael Peña, Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera, the real-life Chavez collaborator Dolores Huerta (played by Dawson in the film), and Chavez’s youngest son Paul – which had all of the vigor and enthusiasm that the film lacks. The audience cheered and roared, and Luna was charming and funny. I just wish he’d made a better movie.
Biopics are always tricky – since it can be tough to condense a person’s life into a mere 90-120 minutes without losing sight of what made that person important in the first place – but they’re even harder to make if the central performance is flat and uninspired. Michael Peña (End of Watch) has some fine qualities as an actor, but he fails to make Chavez, the man, interesting: the non-violence that Chavez advocated does not mean that he, himself, was passive or weak. Yet that is all too often how he comes across.
The other issue I take with the film is how poorly written the female characters are. Why bother having actresses with the power of Dawson and Ferrera if they have so little to do? Ferrera fares better than does Dawson, which is too bad, because Dolores Huerta was just as vital to the labor strikes as was Chavez.
Bottom line? The subject is worthy, and there are far worse movies out there, but keep your expectations low.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
Ah, Wes. I am so glad that you exist, and it was great to see up on stage (with Richard Linklater, no less, as host of the Q&A!). You are intelligent, charming and a great lover of cinema. Your films are made with enormous attention to detail – the production design, alone, makes them worth watching – and with a marvelous combination of irony and whimsy that clearly marks them as yours from the very first moments. You are a true auteur, and your output is like no one else’s. However, what makes you unique is as often what makes me dislike your films as like them. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, I lean toward appreciation, but you still work so hard to keep me out of the emotional lives of your character: as always, it’s almost too twee and precious for me to take.
What do I like about The Grand Budapest Hotel? Ralph Fiennes, Ralph Fiennes, Ralph Fiennes, in that order. I also love the stories within stories and the marvelous use of models and bright colors to accentuate the artificiality of the world Anderson constructs, as well as the claustrophobic spaces and symmetrical compositions. What do I dislike? The refusal to stop – for even a moment – and let us breathe deeply and appreciate the atmosphere; the incessant silliness and constant distance that Anderson creates between the characters and us. I like this film a lot more than, say, Moonrise Kingdom, because we do, eventually – thanks to Fiennes – experience some emotional resonance beyond awkward laughter, and at the end, as Nazi horrors loom, the distancing technique actually works. The film has received enough press, and The New York Times review will tell you all you need to know about the plot. Suffice it to say that if you’re a Wes Anderson fan, you will probably adore every single frame of the movie.
Tuesday, March 11
I gave myself the morning off, since I was really struggling to stay awake during the Grand Budapest Hotel screening, and I didn’t get back to my hotel until well after midnight. This meant that by the time I got to the SXXPress office, the films I had been interested in seeing were now unavailable (unless I wanted to take a chance and wait in long lines for many hours – not a great activity if you need rest). So I decided to spend some more time in the SXSW Trade Show, check out some of the workshops there (Adobe, among other vendors, had many offerings), and then see just two movies in the evening at one of the “Satellite” venues. One of the cool things that SXSW now does is hold screenings outside of the downtown area so that local Austinites who do not feel like braving traffic and crowds can get to see some of the films at the fest. And these are real screenings – by that I mean that the filmmakers hold Q&A sessions afterwards, just as they would at the main locations – so it is a wonderful opportunity for the locals. There are three such venues this year, and I chose the one closest to my hotel: the Alamo Slaughter Lane. Alamo is a chain of cinemas that offers food service within the theater. I was skeptical as to the wisdom of this – wouldn’t it be disruptive? – but I am now a convert. The seats are roomy, and it is hard to beat the convenience. For someone who so often attends press screenings back in Baltimore where my dinners consist of hastily purchased popcorn and candy, this was a wonderful chance to show up at the last minute and actually eat some real food! Baltimore-area theater owners, are you listening?
Beyond Clueless (Charlie Lyne, 2014)
This movie was my biggest disappointment of the festival so far. I hesitate to even spend much time writing about it. I had hoped that a film that billed itself like this – “all will be revealed as Beyond Clueless leads viewers through Hollywood’s treacherous teen years and out the other side” – the movie was devoid of any historical context of the cinematic teen experience earlier than 1994. There was no mention of John Hughes, much less Rebel Without a Cause, and the film really just seemed to serve as an excuse for the director/writer/editor to put shoddily conceived montages of his favorite teen movies up on the movies. Since he looked very young – and admitted in the Q&A that these were the films he had grown up with – I certainly understand how he would be more knowledgeable about the films of the last 20 years than of previous eras. But to completely ignore the historical context and evolution of the genre is, for me, inexcusable. It’s too bad, since Mr. Lyne was very articulate and clearly aware of previous teen trends (someone else asked the question of “why only these movies?” – which I had been about to ask), yet refused to acknowledge them on screen. I cannot recommend this to anyone.
Doc of the Dead (Alexandre O. Philippe, 2014)
Coming on the heels of the failure I had just seen, Doc of the Dead was a welcome return to fine filmmaking. I have not seen The People vs. George Lucas (a previous film by Philippe), but I just added it to my Netflix instant queue. This new documentary of his is a wonderful retrospective on cinematic zombiedom. Filled with experts and fans, alike, and with an excellent discussion of the history of both movie zombies and actual zombies, the movie takes us on an extremely satisfying journey through the evolution of what has become one of the premier genres of our current age. From 1932’s White Zombie to the mega-success of today’s World War Z and “The Walking Dead,” by way of George Romero, we travel through time, space, guts and gore, and learn quite a great deal (I did, anyway). This is a must-see for fans of the genre, and for anyone who has wondered how we became so obsessed with these dark apocalyptic scenarios. If you have access to EPIX programming, you can start watching the film on March 15. Enjoy!