I am back home in Baltimore after a crazy week of 29 screenings (27 features + 1 episodic series + 1 collection of title sequences)! After 4 days in a row of 4 films a day – Monday through Thursday – I spent my final day at SXSW topping that crazy rhythm by seeing 6 films in a row. It helped that the weather turned nasty. Who wants to walk around in heavy rain and flash floods? For the first time, I stayed up late for one of the midnight screenings, which was a blast. Before we see what that film was about, let’s revisit the first five of the films of the day. As always, you can check out my post about Saturday, my post about Sunday, my post about Monday, my post about Tuesday, my post about Wednesday and my post about Thursday to see how I spent the previous six days in Austin.
6 Years (Hannah Fidell, 2015)
For anyone who was in a serious relationship in college and saw that relationship disintegrate under the competing pressures of future-life worries and evolving personalities, Hannah Fidell’s 6 Years will present a familiar story. That is both its strength and weakness. The young writer/director of A Teacher has a fine sense of structure, camera placement and performance, and is not afraid of tense and uncomfortable drama. Both Taissa Farmiga (“American Horror Story“) and Ben Rosenfield (A Most Violent Year) invest their characters with life and genuine emotion, making us believe in the comfortable intimacy of their long-term romance. That’s the good. And while there is no bad – all the elements on display are perfectly wrought – for this viewer, the story, itself, is neither groundbreaking nor fresh. By the end of the screening I was, I will admit, a bit bored, despite the rising conflict. Still, the movie has just been picked up by Netflix – more power to the filmmaker (whose directing skills promise great things down the line) and her producers – so clearly some people were less bored than I. It’s all good.
Peace Officer (Brad Barber/Scott Christopherson, 2015)
As I watched Peace Officer – winner (deservedly) of one of the SXSW Audience Awards – I felt an increasing sense of awe at the grand luck of the filmmakers in meeting William “Dub” Lawrence, the main protagonist of this powerful documentary. A former lawman, Lawrence has made it his life’s mission in recent years to uncover signs of excessive use of force by the police. He’s a classic boy scout, with a sense of right and wrong that excludes the idea that anyone is above the law (as a young policeman, he once wrote himself a parking ticket). The catalyst for his current investigations? His own son-in-law was shot and killed by police in 2008 after a tense standoff; in fact, he was killed by the very S.W.A.T. (“Special Weapons and Tactics”) team that Lawrence had founded back in 1974, in his first term as Sheriff of Davis County, Utah. Today, Lawrence gathers evidence and applies his investigative experience to assist families who have similarly suffered from the rising militarization of our nation’s law enforcement. He is the perfect subject, since he is hardly anti-police, and is extremely thoughtful and measured in his statements: he thinks deeply before he speaks. The directors also include interviews with many police officers who do not share Lawrence’s beliefs, as well as interviews with victims of police brutality, making this more than just a polemical exercise. True, they clearly have a point of view (and what’s wrong with that?), but they try to include differing opinions. A must-see film.
Manson Family Vacation (J. Davis, 2015)
Like Charlie Manson? Think he had (or has, since he’s still alive, albeit in prison) something to offer the world beyond nihilism? If so, then this might just be the film for you since, intentionally or not, Manson Family Vacation (which was also purchased by Netflix at SXSW) ultimately ends up romanticizing the man, the myth and the legend that is Charles Manson. Ostensibly about two brothers – one a successful lawyer and the biological child of their parents, the other a drifter and an adoptee – spending a day together after time apart, the film, for whatever reason, takes a wild tangent into Manson territory, using the grisly cult leader’s story as a metaphor of familial abuse and isolation. Conrad – our adoptee – has felt angry since the arrival of his baby brother caused his new parents to neglect him; Nick – the biological child – doesn’t get this, and can only react with disgust to his older sibling’s obsession with Manson, the ultimate outcast. Their journey – physical and metaphorical – takes them to some very dark places, and though the film has elements of gentle humor that leaven the proceedings – and two fine performances from Jay Duplass (“Transparent“) as Nick and Linas Phillips (Young Adolescents) as Conrad – we can never get away from the uncomfortable fact that writer/director Davis (editor on Duplass’s documentary Kevin) has made a conscious decision to put a mass murderer at the center of his story. <shiver>
Deep Time (Noah Hutton, 2015)
If I thought Manson Family Vacation took a wild tangent beyond its initial premise, my next film made it seem brilliantly structured, by comparison. Here is the summary of the film’s subject, taken from the SXSW catalogue: “Ancient oceans teeming with life, Norwegian settlers, Native Americans and multinational oil corporations find intimacy in deep time. Following up his 2009 feature Crude Independence (SXSW), Deep Time is director Noah Hutton’s ethereal portrait of the landowners, state officials, and oil workers at the center of the most prolific oil boom on the planet for the past six years. With a new focus on the relationship of the indigenous peoples of North Dakota to their surging fossil wealth, Deep Time casts the ongoing boom in the context of paleo-cycles, climate change, and the dark ecology of the future.” That sounds pretty amazing, and I went in hoping for a film that combined elements of Koyaanisqatsi and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Instead, I found myself watching a movie without direction. Noah Hutton may think he has made a movie that ties all of the issues listed above together, but what he has done, instead, is make a rambling documentary about the oil boom in Stanley, North Dakota, and tack on a loosely formed coda about climate change. If he wanted to make a movie about humanity’s role in warming our planet, that would have been fine, but the attempt to add global relevance to his story feels, here, like an afterthought. Which is too bad, since the devastating effects of unbridled corporate greed in the world of oil drilling needs to be examined. Unfortunately, Deep Time is not the film to do it.
Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)
The first film directed by screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, Dredd), Ex Machina is not nearly as profound as it seems to think it is, but is still (mostly) very watchable and filled with enough strange and unexpected twists to keep the viewer guessing to the end. It can never quite figure out what kind of film it wants to be, however, mixing deep thoughts about artificial intelligence (A.I.) with crazy drunken synchronized dancing (which, I will admit, was extremely fun to watch), and although it has fine cinematographic elements that are reminiscent of the best of Stanley Kubrick (slow tracking shots, some on steadicam), if one ponders the subject matter for more than a minute or two, it all seems very dumb. With a pumped-up Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) as a software billionaire who has been working to create a fully functioning human-like robot, and an ethereal Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as that robot, Ex Machina has much to offer in those two marvelous performances. Unfortunately, it also has Domhnall Gleeson (About Time) – an actor who tends to bore me to tears (with the occasional exception) – in the central role as the young protégé whom Isaac invites to his top-secret hideout to run a Turing Test on Vikander. The idea that anyone would take this kid seriously as either a genius programmer or love interest for a fledgling A.I. is hard to swallow. Still, the movie’s final moments are simultaneously chilling and moving, and appeal to the sci-fi geeks in all of us, so I offer a qualified recommendation.
Turbo Kid (François Simard/Anouk Whissell/Yoann-Karl Whissell, 2015)
Wow! Excuse me … gross-out wow! I had never heard of the RKSS Collective, but the buzz from earlier in the week was that Turbo Kid was ridiculous fun, a sort of retro The Road Warrior. So I went, making it my one and only midnight movie of the week. And … the buzz was right on (and the film won a SXSW Audience Award to prove it). A gory good time was had by all.
Set in a parallel-universe post-apocalyptic 1997 (reminding me a bit of last year’s Space Station 76, which I saw at SXSW 2014), the film rocks a 1980s aesthetic, including the design of the fictional comic book, Turbo Rider, that inspires the young main character to dream of a better life. “The Kid” (Munro Chambers of “Degrassi: The Next Generation“), as he is called (though he will soon become … “The Turbo Kid”) survives in a drought-ridden landscape by scavenging abandoned wastelands for artifacts and food from a better time. Soon, his comfortable loneliness is shattered by the friendly advances of a young (and very strange) girl named Apple (Laurence Leboeuf of The Little Queen), as well as by the evil machinations of Zeus (Michael Ironside, hamming it up beautifully). The bulk of the film is about the battle of good vs. evil in a world without hope, and while there’s nothing really new in that story, the real reason to see the film is to revel in its unbridled joy in cheap carnage and mayhem. Bodies are dismembered, guts are disemboweled, heads are severed and much blood is spewed everywhere, all in a way that is more cartoonish than gruesome. It’s disgusting, but that kind of becomes the point. Unlike in Ex Machina, there is no attempt at profundity. The excess is part of the fun. Clearly, the filmmakers are fans of low-budget horror, particularly that of the Silent Night, Deadly Night (not the Santa Claus part, but the obviously fake blood-and-gore part) variety. And if you’re in the mood for a movie that does what it does and never takes itself too seriously, then Turbo Kid is the film for you.
Thank you, SXSW, for a fun week. I look forward to next year!