SXSW 2015 Review #4: Tuesday, March 17

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, and though I feared the possibility that Austin would turn into a drunken madhouse (SXSW and St. Patty’s Day crowds!), it did not, and a good time seemed to be had by all, in a wonderful variety of ways. SXSW Music kicks off for real today – Wednesday, March 18 – as SXSW Interactive winds down, but already yesterday one could see and hear an increasing amount of live music on the street and from various venues. Here’s a wonderful example:

Fun, right? And now, back to movies! So I saw two narrative (fiction) features – after four documentaries on Monday! – and two more documentaries. I loved one from each category, and enjoyed – to a lesser degree – parts of the other two films. Check out my post about Saturdaymy post about Sunday and my post about Monday to see how I spent our first three days here.

All Things Must Pass

All Things Must Pass (Colin Hanks, 2015)

Remember Tower Records? For folks who came of age as music-buying teens and adults in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and (less so) ’90s, Tower was the place to go to purchase record albums and later CDs – as well as books – and mix and mingle with other music aficionados. Founded in Sacramento in 1960 by Russell Solomon, the chain took its time establishing itself in its home city before slowly expanding to San Francisco and then Los Angeles. By the 1970s, it was an institution that offered stores – in all of its multiplying locations – that looked and felt like independent outlets run by hippies (even though those “hippies” knew a thing or two about business); wherever there was a Tower Records, the locals felt like it was their Tower (even in Japan, the first country outside the U.S. to which Tower expanded). This growth continued into the late 80s and early 90s – the rise of the CD helped enormously, as consumers replaced their LPs with the new discs – with no one anticipating the crash that would come with the arrival of digital downloads. Suddenly, by 2006, Tower was gone.

Now, actor-turned-director Colin Hanks (recently seen in Season 1 of FX’s “Fargo” as Gus Grimly, and also son of Tom), who spent the last seven years gathering interviews and archival material, has told the story of this once powerful force in the music world in a brilliant film that speaks to universal truths of business and life while focusing on the specific details of the main principals involved. It is my favorite kind of documentary, and even if you have no particular interest in Tower (but how could you not, as they were once so ubiquitous?), you should see the film if only because the history of trends and institutions once dominant and now vanished reminds us of the poignant reality of the human condition: we all die, but before we do, we hope to do good things. All things must pass, but hopefully only once they’ve happened.

7 Chinese Brothers

7 Chinese Brothers (Bob Byington, 2015)

Jason Schwartzman (The Darjeeling Limited) is having quite the SXSW Festival! In both this and The Overnight (which I reviewed in my first post about SXSW 2015), he shows a range I hadn’t seen from him before. Whereas in the former film he plays a flamboyant bon vivant, in 7 Chinese Brothers, from director Bob Byington (Tuna) he portrays Larry, a man overcome by life and depression, undone by his own lethargy. That’s not to say that this is a gloomy movie. It is quite the reverse, in fact, as Byington mines Larry’s troubles for gentle and off-kilter humor, much helped by the presence of an adorable French bulldog, Arrow, who just happens to be Shwartzman’s own dog. Whatever may happen to Larry, and however low he may sink, we see his true nature in his relationship with Arrow, who snuffles and waddles his way through the film as, well, a dog should. The human supporting cast – including Olympia Dukakis (Away from Her), Tunde Adebimpe (Rachel Getting Married) and Eleanore Pienta (Stinking Heaven) – are all equally as good, and bring lovely warmth and dry wit to the proceedings. I highly recommend.

Adult Beginners

Adult Beginners (Ross Katz, 2014)

This is a movie that works when it’s funny and doesn’t when it’s not. That is, the dramatic scenes feel forced, while the comedy flows easily. Nick Kroll (Kroll Show“) stars as Jake, who when the movie opens is on top of the world, about to launch a major new tech device (similar to Google glass), when a manufacturer of one of the crucial parts pulls out of the deal. His company collapses, and to escape his angry investors, he goes to his childhood home on Long Island, where his pregnant older sister lives with her husband and first child. The rest of the movie is the usual fish-out-of-water kind of story (or, given the recurring swim-class theme, human-in-water kind of story), in which Nick must learn to be a good person before he can work his way back. Kroll is amusing, and Rose Byrne (Neighbors) is lovely, as always, as his sister (though they do not look like they came from the same gene pool), but neither they nor Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) can save the script from its soggy elements (water really is a metaphor here, isn’t it?). Too much conflict is packed into the end of the second act, leaving a very rushed resolution, and since we haven’t spent that much time with these people, neither that conflict nor its resolution feels entirely organic to the story. Still, laughs are laughs, and when the script sticks to jokes, a good time is had by all.

She's The Best Thing In It

She’s the Best Thing in It (Ron Nyswaner, 2015)

This documentary, from writer-turned-director Ron Nyswaner (The Painted Veil screenplay), tells the story of lifelong character actress Mary Louise Wilson (who finally won a Tony Award in 2007 after years on stage and screen) as she heads back to her native New Orleans to teach an acting class at Tulane University. Mixing archival footage from Wilson’s life, video of the class she teaches, and interviews with both her and her students, as well as with fellow veteran actors like Frances McDormand and Tyne Daly, Nyswaner tries to speak to larger truths about acting and life while also recounting the details of Wilson’s life. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get the mix quite write, and while there is a lot of good material here, the structure is all over the place. That, plus the fact that the film is just not very well shot (focus in the wrong places, poor lighting), keeps She’s the Best Thing in It from becoming the truly moving tribute that a woman of Wilson’s stature deserves. It’s not a bad movie; it’s just a particularly good one.

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