SXSW Film 2014 Mediated love, digital cinematography, and original voices worthy of discovery

She’s Lost Control (Anja Marquardt)

German filmmaker Anja Marquardt’s feature debut is a taut psychological story about modern, urban loneliness aptly set in New York. Brooke Bloom plays Ronah, a woman getting her degree in psychology who works as a sex surrogate. Though skilled at initiating intimacy with her clients, Ronah’s life is fairly barren, a loneliness she seems aware of but unwilling to face (case in point: she freezes her eggs). When a challenging new client Johnny (Marc Menchaca) begins to break down her boundaries, Ronah’s security and stability are threatened. The dialogue is pared down to what is necessary, allowing DP Zack Galler’s camerawork to do a lot of the narrative work. Both Bloom and Menchaca find deep layers in their characters, challenging ideas of what true connection means.

Open Windows (Nacho Vigalondo)

One of the bigger disappointments of SXSW, Nacho Vigalondo follows up the entertaining Timecrimes and Extraterrestrial with a voyeuristic Rear Window homage that succumbs to complete nonsense. Elijah Wood stars as Nick, a superfan of actress Jill Godard (Sasha Grey), with whom he is supposed to have dinner after winning an online contest. When the dinner is canceled, Nick finds himself guided by a mysterious figure known only as “Chord” into watching Jill through her cellphone and computer, eventually having to rescue her from Chord’s nefarious (if utterly convoluted) plans. Oh, and the whole thing is told on the desktop of a computer though the opening, minimizing, and maximizing of windows. There are moments of clever ingenuity along with funny dialogue, but no matter how game the actors are, the plot’s complete lack of coherence and its reliance on superhuman abilities and impossible technology renders it a trying affair that bewilders rather than enraptures.

Surviving Cliffside (Jon Matthews)

Jon Matthews’ debut film (and senior thesis for NYU), Surviving Cliffside follows him as he spends time in the titular section of West Virginia that is home to guns, rampant drug use, and Matthews’ cousin EJ and family. Matthews documents EJ and his love of weed and prescription drugs as well as EJ’s daughter, Makala, as she competes in beauty pageants to become Little Miss West Virginia. As the film goes along, it is revealed that Makala battled and beat leukemia at a very young age, overcoming the ravaging disease to become the sassy pageant frontrunner she is today. Meanwhile, Matthews’ subjects are open about their drug use, love of firearms, and the various criminal acts they have to perpetrate to survive. The project contains telltale signs of a first-time filmmaker — including a lack of certainty in camera placement and poor lighting — and the director may be too close to the story to bring anything approaching objectivity to the piece. However, the love he feels for his rowdy relatives is unmistakable; audiences will be unable to resist rooting for them.

HouseBound (Gerard Johnstone)

A pleasant surprise that will certainly be a favorite on the horror genre circuit, HouseBound is a thoroughly entertaining film from New Zealand that quickly became one of my favorites of SXSW. An energetic and seamless blend of comedy and thriller, the film concerns Kylie Bucknell (the outstanding Morgana O’Reilly) being put under house arrest at her mom’s house (equally excellent Rima Te Wiata) and soon discovering there may be an unearthly presence in the house, or something far more mundane but also far more sinister. The film’s plot harbors twists and turns that never feel forced or convoluted but instead like the various moves of a roller coaster as it zips around corners and over great heights. Writer/director Gerard Johnstone’s film is reminiscent of early Peter Jackson, not just because of its shared country of origin, but also that manic energy that promises anything can happen. HouseBound is the film people will catch late at night, getting sucked in by O’Reilly’s magnetism, Wiata’s comic performance, and Johnstone’s assured direction, and telling all of their friends about the next day.

Wolf at the Door (Fernando Coimbra)

An intense look at the aftermath of our actions, Wolf at the Door is a taut thriller from Brazil by writer/director Fernando Coimbra. Bernardo and Sylvia’s daughter goes missing, and Bernardo believes his ex-lover Rosa (Leandra Leal) knows something about it. When the cops bring Rosa in, a story begins to unwind that contradicts the pictures painted by Sylvia and Bernardo and what the audience is initially led to believe. Coimbra shifts the narration duties between Bernardo and Rosa, proving neither is exactly reliable. The film is more interested in the aftermath of situations — the heavy panting after an intense sex session, the tears after being beaten, the loneliness after being abandoned — than in the situations themselves, showing that what we do echoes forward through time in ways we could never imagine. Meanwhile, Coimbra also employs a lot of train imagery in this tale that can only go backward and forward, staying on the same unfortunate, dismal track. Leandra Leal turns in a great performance as a woman who is guilty while remaining too innocent for the world around her. Wolf at the Door is a solid film that doesn’t do much to upset the genre standards, but still delivers an emotional gut-punch.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David & Nathan Zellner)

In 2001 a Japanese woman went to search for the briefcase of money buried in the Midwest in the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo. David and Nathan Zellner spin this true story into a funny and dark Grimms fairy tale, complete with a heroine dressed in the telltale red hoodie. Rinko Kikuchi translates Kumiko’s shy Tokyo office worker into a determined woman with quiet fury and force, and DP Sean Porter’s immaculate images ably keep up with her (much of the humor in Kumiko is subtle and physical, underscored by the elegant camera movement). There’s a thorough sense of vision in every aspect of the construction of the film, from the dream-like opening to its distressing finish. As with their previous film Kid-Thing, the Zellner Brothers once again collaborated with Austin band The Octopus Project on the score, which is perfectly pitched to the narrative.

The Heart Machine (Zach Wigon)

An expansion of his short film Someone Else’s Heart, Zach Wigon’s debut feature stars John Gallagher Jr. as Cody, a New Yorker who discovers his long-distance girlfriend may be closer to home than he thought. Cody and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) met online while she was supposedly in Berlin, and became a couple without having ever met. When Cody begins to suspect Virginia actually is in New York, he channels his confusion and paranoia into tracking her down. If the film wraps up somewhat hastily, Wigon sustains tension, and I give him credit for the surprising and sympathetic shift to Virginia’s perspective, opening up her world to the audience. For a film with significant scenes built around Skype conversations, the attention paid to the cinematography of The Heart Machine really stands out in the strong collaboration between Wigon and DP Rob Leitzell (who also shot Benh Zeitlin’s breakout short Glory At Sea). (I’ll note that The Cherry Tavern made a surprising second appearance here in my SXSW film viewing — breakout status??).

Among the Living (Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury)

From the team behind the shocking and creative Inside, Among the Living is a disappointment as a superior concept and a few stellar scenes that are undermined far too often by the worst clichés of the genre. Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury wrote and directed this tale of adolescent hoodlums who run afoul of a mass murderer in the Michael Meyers vein. The writer/directors do a good job of setting up their youthful trio of troublemakers as real characters, getting the audience invested before the slasher comes for them. That crucial aspect of the film is spoiled by the annoying horror tropes of people standing around instead of running, or acting in nonsensical ways rather than doing something smart to survive.

The Infinite Man (Hugh Sullivan)

The Infinite Man is a charming romantic comedy that tells its story with three characters, one set, and a novel approach to time travel to tell its story. Dean (Josh McConville) is a scientist with a Type-A personality intent on having the perfect anniversary with his girlfriend, Lana (Hannah Marshall), as long as they adhere to his itemized itinerary. When Lana’s ex shows up, a scene-stealing Alex Dimitriades, things begin to spiral out of control, leaving but one potential solution to fix their relationship: time travel. Dean and Lana try multiple times to correct where they went wrong, attempting to find the perfect relationship before realizing it’s all just an illusion. Writer/director Hugh Sullivan’s film is a sweet diversion that doesn’t add much to either the sci-fi or romcom canons, but is an entertaining story with laugh-out-loud moments.

Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa)

Technically a short film, but I wish Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person was a feature. Bene Coopersmith plays a sage record store owner in Brooklyn who finds a beautiful stranger passed out on his floor after a party. When she refuses to leave his apartment he consults with the odd crew of men who come through his store about what to do. But really the story is beside the point. The film has a strange rhythm, but such a sure and sustained sense of place and its characters that I’m content just to spend time in their world. The soul music tracks by the likes of Little Ann add a groovy layer to the film.

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