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

We still love you, SXSW. But the enormity of what it’s become means the Film Festival has gotten caught in the tentacles of the Tech — sorry, Interactive and Music festivals. It’s not that the pictures have gotten small; it’s that all of the noise has gotten so much louder. It doesn’t help that savvy Austin residents pay their mortgages by housing half of New York and Los Angeles on their couches — pity the fool with no expense account. But we can live on cadged beers and tacos; the trick is going to the margins. The satellite venue The Marchesa is particularly well worth the trek. The renovated theater (and new home of the Austin Film Society) was an oasis from the crowds, with a sweet collection of vintage film posters and a well-stocked bar to boot. And despite the hassles, SXSW Film 2014 battled back with original voices worthy of discovery.

One theme to emerge was love mediated by technology, for better or for worse: two competition films centered on couples navigating their relationships via Skype. Thankfully, this was not at all as boring as it sounds. Filmmakers are finding unique ways of incorporating technology like cellphones and laptops into their stories. Another informal pattern was the heartening, exciting leaps digital cinematography seems to have made. Gone are the days of shaky mumblecore-cam thanks to rising DPs like Sean Porter, Zack Galler, Chris Teague, and Rob Leitzell, who are blowing us away with their beautifully lit and composed pictures. Although the big prize still went to two white girls in search of themselves in Brooklyn, the films were tauter and hewed more closely to genre than in years past.

The following are our highlights of the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.

No No: A Dockumentary (Jeff Radice)

Director Jeff Radice’s look at controversial 70s pitcher Dock Ellis is a crowd-pleasing affair that shines a spotlight on an oft-overlooked era when MLB wasn’t too concerned about its players’ drug use and the U.S. was all too concerned about the actions of outspoken black men. Radice’s even-handed approach doesn’t soften the darker elements of Ellis’ addiction but compliments the otherwise raucous stories of a different era. Unfortunately, the film lacks real narrative cohesion and is a tad uneven, with the first half’s focus on drugs outshining the more insightful process of Ellis’ rehabilitation. Surprisingly, No No is best when discussing the racial politics of the 70s within and outside the sport of baseball. The drug stories are clearly the hook of the film, and they are funny, but don’t quite jive with the living hell of addiction from which Ellis eventually emerged.

Buzzard (Joel Potrykus)

Following his earlier “animal” films Coyote and Ape, Michigan filmmaker Joel Potrykus has again cast musician Joshua Burge (aka Chance Jones) in Buzzard, a metal revenge fantasy comeuppance story that was the most badass movie I saw at SXSW. Burge plays Marty Jackitansky, a lazy temp at a mortgage company who sees an opportunity to rip off the bank and takes it. Marty’s a hustler, but this scheme ratchets up the stakes, and he goes into hiding in coworker Derek’s basement before eventually running off to Detroit (Potrykus is hilarious as uber-dweeb Derek, and this detour in Derek’s “Party Zone” has some of the best scenes in the film). Marty is all vicious id, but his ambitions are so minor that his antics are funny — until he morphs his Nintendo Power Glove into a Krueger claw and anarchy is loosed upon the world. Despite a burst of joy in a Mauvais Sang tribute, and a memorable plate of spaghetti, Marty’s world is pretty bleak. Buzzard is hardly a manifesto, but against the backdrop of Detroit it definitely seems to ask who’s the scavenger.

Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas)

Viewers who haven’t seen Rob Thomas’ girl detective TV show won’t get as much from the feature film sequel, which relies on a history of episodes for nostalgic references and character development. But a) seriously, watch the show — it’s great and 2) the movie still works by dint of the charms and chemistry of its cast and the lightning-fast banter of Thomas and his co-writer, Diane Ruggiero. Reuniting the cast for one more mystery surrounding dead classmates and a high school reunion, there are a handful of pandering scenes and the plot is slight, but the film moves at a brisk pace, filled as it is with delightful performances and dialogue that distract from such concerns. Kristen Bell anchors the whole affair, clearly playing a role she has deep affection for. The film, like the show, is a showcase for her energy, sass, and range.

I Believe In Unicorns (Leah Meyerhoff)

For a film with such a whimsical title, the darkness of Leah Meyerhoff’s I Believe In Unicorns comes as a welcome surprise. A sister in spirit to Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love (currently in theaters), Unicorns is another sharp and searingly honest look at first love. Natalia Dyer is luminous as Davina, a girl aching to escape the monotony of her world and sadness of her home, where she is her disabled mother’s caretaker. When Davina meets Sterling (Peter Vack), the mythical badboy in the leather jacket, her need for love is so desperate and confused that she falls for him. He meets her need with a wildly inconstant, abusive love that threatens to break her. Besides casting the immensely talented Dyer and Vack in the lead roles, Meyerhoff’s strongest choice was to give the film’s emotional arcs a visual texture. The project was shot on super 16mm film, and Meyerhoff expands on that palette with super8 footage, time-lapse photography, and stop-motion animation. These layered, Jungian images bring Davina’s fears and fantasies to vivid life.

The Guest (Adam Wingard)

Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s follow-up to You’re Next is a throwback to the synth-driven weirdo action movies of the 80s that never reduces itself to pastiche or genre clichés. Dan Stevens stars as an ex-soldier visiting the family of his fallen comrade and helping around their house. Things take a sharp turn as bodies start piling up, but it’s all done with a manic twinkle in the eye and smirking one-liner delivered with brutal violence (and amazing music). The film would not be out of place on heavy rotation on HBO in the late 80s (that’s meant as a compliment) — lurid enough to attract the eyes of 12-year-olds, but weird enough to remain in their heads for years. Wingard and Barrett recreate the aura of a sub-genre without simply making references, all while delivering taut suspense sprinkled with dark comedy. The Guest is a standout lovers of the genre would do well to seek out.

The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans)

Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his incredibly frenetic The Raid: Redemption finds the director seeking to expand his action palette beyond close-fighting and into such nuances as gun-play, car chases, and elaborate set pieces. The film takes a while (relatively speaking) to get going, setting up all of the major characters and relationships for about 25 minutes — but then it’s one fast-paced, impossibly staged action sequence after another. Blood gushes and bones break in record numbers, which rarely allows space for characterization or nuanced dialogue. The plot itself is simplistic (and reminiscent of many crime family movies before it), but the spectacle Evans has cooked up with his stunt team is what people are coming to see. The Raid 2 is bigger on every level compared to its predecessor, including a more operatic emotional scale, and it serves as a challenge to any and all other action movies to step up their game.

The Mend (John Magary)

The Mend is the follow up to John Magary’s 2008 short film The Second Line, set in post-Katrina New Orleans. His sense of humor and strong rapport with actors carries over, but I’m not sure what The Mend is about. It begins as a relationship drama, takes a threatening stab at mumblecore, then turns the reins over to Mat (Josh Lucas) and Alan (Stephen Plunkett), two brothers locked in a bizarre, bruising battle for sanity, dominance, or maybe just space? Who cares! The whip-smart writing and chemistry between Lucas and Plunkett are strong enough to carry the film. Less a plot than a jangly collection of scenes, The Mend has the breezy confidence and plain New York weirdness of a 70s character piece (plus e-cigarettes). Worth it alone for the very funny sequence wherein the brothers pick on a millennial film set P.A., and bonus points for shooting in my favorite New York dive, The Cherry Tavern.

What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi)

A giant leap from their quirkfest Eagle Vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows finds stars/writers/directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi moving from the stale world of twee indie comedy into the more interesting realm of a mockumentary about vampires living in New Zealand. Clement, Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, and a few others play bloodsuckers living in the other ‘land down under’ who invite a camera crew to document their daily undead lives. While vampire movies are in excess these days, each with its own convoluted mythology, Clement and Waititi find plenty of original material to mine for laughter, placing an emphasis on characterization while not shying away from lurid horror elements. Recalling work from his Flight of the Conchord days, Clement grounds much of the outsized horror in petty mundane details and conversations, the juxtaposition creating a mirthful sense of glee and playfulness that helps propel the film. Similarly, the chemistry of the cast boosts the banter, even if there are a few inert scenes and plot developments that lead nowhere. It’s a highly quotable movie that will please audiences, perhaps suggesting promising developments in the filmmakers’ futures.

Oculus (Mike Flanagan)

Oculus was billed as the scariest, creepiest film at SXSW. While I don’t think that’s accurate, I do think it’s a well-made film that is more interested in discussing the effects of trauma than scaring audiences. There are a few jump-scares and startling moments — and one exceptionally well-done piece of misdirection that forces the audience to cringe and gasp — but director Mike Flanagan is mostly interested in creating tension and investing in a tone of dread that permeates every scene and line of dialogue. The film also should be commended for overcoming a concept that boils down to, “Death Mirror: The Mirror that Kills.” Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites are siblings, reunited after Thwaites’ institutionalization many years ago following the death of their parents. Gillan believes the deaths were the result of an evil mirror with a long history of macabre coincidences, while Thwaites’ therapy has resulted in believing his parents were mentally disturbed people and the titular mirror had nothing to do with their fate. Director Flanagan plays with the idea of memory, as well as the film’s chronology, by intercutting scenes of the siblings as children with the present day. This strategy nurtures an unreliability that increases the tension, but also unfortunately makes it harder to connect with the characters. Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan deserve special praise as child versions of the siblings, giving incredibly emotional performances. It’s a mish-mash, but Oculus does work as a meditation on the after-effects of traumatic experiences that can haunt our minds and dictate our behavior for years.

Ping Pong Summer (Michael Tully)

If there’s a true unicorn on this list, Ping Pong Summer would be it. A 1980s teen comedy shot on film? I’m not sure how Michael Tully and co pulled it off, but I am glad they did. The crazy thing about Ping Pong Summer is it doesn’t feel like a throwback. It’s more like an actual 80s B movie in all the best ways. There is a lot of love (and blue eyeshadow) in Tully’s resurrection of his childhood summers spent in Ocean City, Maryland (as Tully puts it, “In 1992 I thought ping-pong was awesome, in 1997 I thought ping-pong was awesome, throughout the 2000s I thought ping-pong was awesome, and in 2014 I still think it’s awesome.”). To keep it real the cast features Maryland locals, including discovery Marcello Conte as Rad Miracle, the shy ping-pong underdog who has to defeat the bully and win the girl. But there are cameos, notably Lea Thompson as his exasperated mom, Susan Sarandon as the Miyagi to Rad’s Daniel, and Robert Longstreet as his smarmy, too-tanned Uncle Jim. I have to give a shout out to the keys in production design, costume, hair, and makeup for their accurate and detailed work, from the smorgasbord restaurant buffet to the amazing getups, including Rad’s signature red parachute pants.

Stage Fright (Jerome Sable)

An ingenious concept marred by wretched realization, Stage Fright bills itself as Glee meets a slasher film, but ends up in the worst of both worlds. Camilla Swanson (Allie MacDonald) is the daughter of a Broadway superstar (Minnie Driver) who was slain on the opening night of a musical 10 years ago. Now she and her brother work at a musical theater summer camp for their adoptive father (Meat Loaf). When the camp puts on a production of the very play her mother died performing, Camilla gets the starring role, but a murderer is intent on stopping the show. I love musical horror films, but this one misses the mark by a wide margin. From choreography, to plotting, to many of the performances — what should be a clever and (pardon the pun) gleeful affair ends up being a slog. Audiences would do well to avoid this toothless movie and instead seek out Michele Soavi’s (very similar) StageFright or, the apex of the subgenre, De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise.

Harmontown (Neil Berkeley)

While it’s Community creator Dan Harmon’s face that graces the majority of Harmontown, Neil Berkeley’s documentary is actually about the marginalized communities and individuals who find their muse and spring to life when properly engaged. The documentary follows Harmon and his cohost Jeff Davis as they set out on a tour of the country alongside Harmon’s girlfriend, Erin McGathy, and their resident DungeonMaster, Spencer Crittenden. In between clips of Harmon getting drunk on stage and engaging in various acts of silliness and embarrassing honesty, his friends and collaborators paint a picture of a very creative and powerful writer whose lack of good interpersonal working relationships is the price for his demand for artistic perfection. As Harmon rants and rages on stages across many states, the film slowly reveals Crittenden is actually the true hero of this tale — the sensitive introvert who isn’t good with people yet has found himself connecting with hundreds across the land. What Harmon and his friends tap into is that sense of not fitting in and not being afraid to be honest about it. Harmontown could’ve devoted more time to McGathy’s thoughts, experiences, and background, as she tends to get the short shrift on screen time. Also, if Berkeley had better explained Harmon’s obsession with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, it would’ve placed a lot more of his dialogue into context. Despite those missteps, Harmontown it is an oddly affecting tale of misfits who gather together to discover they’re not as alone as they thought.

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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