It’s that time of year again, as it was in 2014 and 2015, when I took my first and second trips, respectively, to the annual SXSW Festival in Austin, TX. As I did last year, I have traveled with a group of Stevenson University Film & Moving Image students, pictured below.
This year, however, I am not just attending as a professor and blogger, but as an official member of the press, writing for Hammer to Nail during the festival, and preparing post-fest coverage for Dan Rodricks’ “Roughly Speaking” Baltimore Sun podcast and for Bmoreart. What this means is that I pre-watched 10 films before the festival began, and am interviewing those filmmakers (directors and cast) plus a few more whose films I am watching on the ground. That leaves me with less time (for now) to see movies live, but I have still seen a few. What follows is a list of those films, with brief capsule reviews, plus links to the reviews that have already been posted, as of this writing, on Hammer to Nail. The interviews will take longer to appear on that site, as first someone (that would be me) has to transcribe and condense them . . .
Let’s start with the Hammer to Nail reviews that have been posted, so far:
And now here are my thoughts on the few films I have seen since my arrival in Austin, which will not get their own review at Hammer to Nail:
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016)
New Zealander Taika Waititi (co-director, What We Do in the Shadows) has made a film that is extremely entertaining in its first 15 minutes, but which completely loses its way after that. Like the young boy at its center, the script needs a a firm adult hand to guide it towards coherence. That hand is stuck in adolescent hyperactivity, however, and so much of the good will of the opening quickly dissipates in the chaos that follows. Which is too bad, as both Julian Dennison – as Ricky Baker, a rebellious tween kid brought to a lonely farmstead foster home as a last resort – and Sam Neill (Backtrack) – as the ornery father figure left to care for him – are good, with an easy and funny rapport. As the hijinks in the bush go on, Waititi cannot seem to manage the mix of comedy and tragedy that works so brilliantly at the start. The film has appeal, but not enough to sustain it through its latter half.
Susan Glatzer’s debut documentary takes a look at the popularity of swing dancing since the 1980s, when, according the film, the long-neglected (but never forgotten) dance style began it’s slow return. One of Glatzer’s talking-head interviewees points to the 1990s “trifecta” (as she calls it) of Swing Kids (1993), Swingers (1996) and the Gap Khaki commercial (1998) as the turning point in swing’s revival, kicking it into high gear. Whether you care about this history or not, there’s a lot of great dancing on display, and the film is made with a certain pep that keeps it going, even when its narrative falters. For this is the kind of movie where the filmmaking is not as engaging as the subject matter. Glazer’s – and her subjects’ – hearts are fully in this endeavor, so I feel like a heel being so critical, but there is something profoundly irritating to me about history being told by its participants – of course, partisan to their cause – than by actual historians. In other words, a few actual experts – rather than enthusiasts – would give the film greater heft. Glatzer also sets up a a false dichotomy of work vs. play, where almost everyone in the film seems to hate their day jobs, sneering at those who don’t wish to dance – and be free! – as they do. Still, there’s enough here of interest for a qualified recommendation. Do with that what you will.
And Punching the Clown (Gregori Viens, 2016)
Singer/comedian (and singing comedian) Henry Phillips plays a fictionalized version of himself in this follow-up/sequel to director Gregori Viens’ 2009 Punching the Clown. The events of that previous film (which I haven’t seen) are alluded to here, but this is more or less a stand-alone story, requiring no prior knowledge of Phillips or his sad-sack misadventures. Instead, all one needs is a desire to laugh and a tolerance for comedies of embarrassment. Phillips is an engaging on-screen presence – even if not all of his jokes resonate with me (I get tired of his constant borderline-sexist tales of woeful relationships) – and the gags outside of the stand-up routines are very funny. With great support work from Tig Notaro (Tig), her real-life partner Stephanie Allynne (In a World…), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) and Sarah Silverman (Take This Waltz), among others, And Punching the Clown is a frequently delightful riff and failure and success . . . and failure.
Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2016)
Now that I have been through the hellish experience that is Hardcore Henry, I look back to my (positive) reaction to its trailer and wonder, “What was I thinking?” Why did I imagine that this would be anything other than one continuous bloodbath with a completely incomprehensible story? While it’s true that the opening 10 to 20 (I can no longer recall) minutes of the film have a certain (fascist) exuberance to them, after that what plot there is descends into mind-numbing repetition of one gruesome (and graphic) killing after another. Shot entirely from the first-person point of view of its titular character, Hardcore Henry mimics the aesthetics of many a first-person-perspective video game, a tactic not without interest as a cinematic exercise, but not enough to sustain the movie for its 90-minute length. Unless, of course, all you want to do is kill, kill, and kill, in which case, welcome to your own private nirvana.
Stay tuned for more SXSW film news throughout the week.