Thank goodness for film festivals given the domination of theatre screens by huge noisy superhero franchises (Deadpool, Batman vs. Superman, the upcoming Captain America: Civil War) whose only point is commercial. Quality films, especially independents, need all the exposure they can get.
In its 30th year, Austin’s South By Southwest Festival (SXSW) has grown into a huge cultural exposition and networking event. SXSW Interactive is at the cutting edge of cultural media and SXSW Music is one of the world’s great musical showcases. SXSW Film now ranks among North America’s leading film festivals having expanded, like Sundance, from small beginnings to become globally significant. Like Sundance it’s also very strong on documentary selections. Fittingly, there is a “24 beats per second” category for music-themed films.
This year’s festival from March 11-19 was energized by the vibrancy of Texas filmmaking, opening with the world premiere of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! Linklater (Boyhood) is a pillar of the Austin film community and its most famous export. That was followed by the North American premiere of Austin-based Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special. SXSW premiered two superb documentaries by Austin-based director Keith Maitland (Tower, A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story) I’ll discuss in a subsequent column. The festival also presented the Sundance documentary Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny, co-directed by SXSW co-founder Louis Black, which I’ll explore further in a column on Linklater’s work.
I’ve previously reviewed Canadian Jean-Marc Vallé’s just-released Demolition (http://www.foxsearchlight.com/demolition/), which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September. Notwithstanding the cool critical reception it received there, the movie’s star Jake Gyllenhaal, who spoke at SXSW, delivers another excellent performance in the demanding role of an unhappy investment banker driven to deconstruct his life after the shock of losing his wife in a tragic accident. Indeed Demolition was chosen the audience favourite in the SXSW “Headliners” category.
The following highlight other narrative features that impressed and a few that provoked a more mixed reaction.
Everybody Wants Some!! (U.S. 2016, now in theatres, http://www.everybodywantssomemovie.com/)
Linklater’s latest is no masterwork like Boyhood but it sports terrific ensemble acting delivering a highly entertaining look back at college days circa 1980. A semi-autobiographical followup of sorts to the high-school antics of Dazed and Confused, the central character, Jake (Blake Jenner), is a freshman at a southeast Texas college and a promising pitcher hoping to make its baseball team. The often raucous action takes place over a few days before classes start as Jake tries to fit in with an eclectic gang of guys and future teammates. Amid the pranks and competitions there’s more going on than guys tooling around in cars trying to pick up girls. Jake belies the jock stereotype in making a soulful connection with an arts major, Beverly (Zoey Deutch). They share a moment that elevates the picture and suggests a youthful passage into adulthood that, for all its rowdy eruptions, brims with possibility.
Bodkin Ras (Netherlands 2016, http://bodkinras.com/)
I was really taken with this unusual and highly effective insertion of a fictional storyline into an arresting non-fiction setting. Bodkin Ras (Sohrab Bayat) is a young Dutch man, a fugitive from serious legal troubles at home, who arrives in the depressed northeastern Scots town of Forres. Bodkin forms an ill-fated relationship with Lily (Lily Szramko), the only other fictional element, a young woman as desperate to leave as he is to find temporary sanctuary. The townspeople Bodkin encounters play themselves, from “Red James,” an ex-con philosopher reflecting on evil, to the alcoholic Eddie, tormented by the suicides of two sons, with whom Bodkin finds work building fences. Many gather daily at the local watering hole The Eagle ironically dubbed “The Chapel.” Writer-director Kaweh Modiri spent years gaining their trust and the result is a brilliant blending of raw cinema verité and compelling hard-luck narrative.
Midnight Special (U.S. 2016, http://www.midnightspecialmovie.com/)
True to Austin’s slogan to “keep it weird,” writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) serves up some supernatural strangeness in this haunting tale of an eight-year old boy from another world. Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has been adopted as a “saviour” by a Texas cult led by Pastor Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). A few days before their expected rapturous “day of judgement” in March 2011 the boy is abducted by his biological father Roy (Michael Shannon) aided by off-duty Texas state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Their violent escape eventually reunites the boy with his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Not only does Alton possess explosive powers emanating from his eyes (shielded by protective goggles), he is being sought by the National Security Agency (NSA) for his apparent access to top-secret information. NSA investigating agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) plays a pivotal role in an escalating drama leading to a shootout with church pursuers and a military occupation. In this taut thriller, nothing can stop the cosmic event of a parallel universe made visible that will forever separate the boy from his parents.
Chevalier (Greece 2015)
Presented in the “festival favourites” category, this award-winning film by director/co-writer Athina Rachel Tsangari cleverly probes the vulnerable male egos of six men of varying ages, including two brothers, on a fishing boat in the Aegean Sea. To pass the time as they make their way back to port they engage in a series of competitions, the ultimate winner of which gets a signet chevalier ring. Exposing male vanities, rivalries and anxieties provides plenty of foibles about which to smile, or wince, and apart from pride no one gets too hurt in the end.
Under the Shadow (U.K./Jordan/Qatar 2016)
Iranian writer-director Babak Anvari’s debut feature, which premiered at Sundance in the midnight program, takes the horror-thriller genre to another level. Set during the real terrors of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, it centres on a young woman, Shideh, denied a medical career for political activism, who is left to care for young daughter Dorsa while her physician husband Iraj is sent to frontline duty. Their apartment building shakes under Iraqi missile strikes until they are the only residents left. While Shideh first dismisses religious superstitions of invading malevolent “dijinn” forces, the fears of her daughter, distraught over a favourite doll being taken, become increasingly real.
Born to Be Blue (Canada/U.K. 2015) and Miles Ahead (U.S. 2015)
These two biopics delve into the tortured careers of legendary jazz trumpet players whose artistic achievements were marred by addictions and personal tragedies. Writer-director Robert Budreau’s Born to be Blue juggles between imagining the highs and lows of Chet Baker’s career from his 1954 “Birdland” debut, to his travails as a junkie who abandons a wife and child, to his comeback following recovery from a brutal beating. Ethan Hawke is convincing as Baker who once played himself in a failed Dino de Laurentiis project, a misbegotten movie within a movie. In Miles Ahead, actor/director/co-writer Don Cheadle is equally good portraying the volatile character of Miles Davis (who had no time for Baker). The film mainly focuses on a five-year period in the 1970s when the erratic Davis quit performing, though pursued by a reporter claiming to be from Rolling Stone as well as by an impatient Columbia Records and an unscrupulous promoter. More in a future column on movies about musicians.
In a Valley of Violence (U.S. 2016)
Ethan Hawke delivers another stirring star turn as Paul, an ex-soldier gunslinger, in writer-director Ti West’s 1890s western. Accompanied by faithful canine companion Abby, Paul just wants to get away to Mexico until, stopping in a dusty frontier town, trouble finds him in the form of the hotheaded Gilly (James Ransone), son of the gruff marshal (John Travolta). Gilly’s humiliation at Paul’s hands leads to a savage nighttime attack that forces Paul to break his vow to give up killing, though in the final showdown it’s a young woman who gives the saving the coup de grace as witnessed by the bedraggled Irish priest Paul first encounters on the road.
My Blind Brother (U.S. 2016)
Winner of a “gamechanger” jury award, writer-director Sophie Goodheart’s sprightly dramedy teases out the fraternal tension between Robbie (Adam Scott), who is legally blind but a star disabled athlete doted on by mom and dad, and brother Bill (Nick Kroll), his hapless sighted helper growing increasingly resentful in the shade of awesome Robbie’s “Out of Sight” foundation triumphs. Robbie also claims the attentions of Rose (Jenny Slate) with whom Bill is in love. The triangle is an accident waiting to happen but, after averting disaster during a swimming marathon and suffering further mishap, it seems the bruises, physical and emotional, may heal.
Jean of the Joneses (Canada 2016)
In writer-director Stella Meghie’s Brooklyn story, Jean (Taylour Paige) gets implicated in the secrets of her large multi-generational African-American family after breaking up with her white boyfriend and moving back among reluctant relatives. The biggest is triggered when a long-absent grandfather arrives on her grandmother’s doorstep and promptly expires of a heart attack. It turns out he had another daughter besides Jean’s mother and two aunts. A hesitant romance between Jean and the paramedic who comes for the body becomes the best thing about the ripples that ensue.
This domestic ensemble was more satisfying than the Canadian selection in competition, writer-director Joe Klein’s The Other Half (http://theotherhalfmovie.com/), a brooding Montreal-based romance between a mournful man who’s lost a brother and a bipolar woman, although the real-life couple of Tatiana Maslany and Welsh actor Tom Cullen do good work in the principal roles.
The Arbalest (U.S. 2016)
The recipient of the jury prize among 10 narratives in competition is a controversial choice that definitely keeps it weird. In writer-director Adam Pinney’s black comedy, Foster Kalt’s innocent children’s toy invention is merely the entrée to a spiral from falling for a woman, Sylvia, “who hates him,” to a demented denouement of deadly consequences. After a misappropriated “Kalt Cube” brings him the wages of unearned fortune, in which Sylvia shares, the reclusive Kalt is pursued by a media crew looking for a story while another game is afoot with Sylvia and her burly husband. Let’s just say it ends with a mystery “toy” in a briefcase and a bang.
Violence was a troubling theme running through some other selections I saw: I Am Not a Serial Killer (Ireland/U.K.) about a death-obsessed teen who helps his undertaker mother; Black (Belgium) about inter-racial gang conflict in Brussels; War on Everyone (U.K.) about a pair of rogue New Mexico cops who emerge from a bloodbath to enjoy the spoils of their war; The Trust (U.S.) about another pair of corrupt cops whose big score proves to be fatal.
I wasn’t able to get in to see American Fable, a surrealist story centred on the world of a young Midwestern farm girl. The film had a lot of buzz for its cinematography, not surprising considering that writer-director Anne Hamilton is a protégé of Texan master Terrence Malick (whose next feature Weightless is set in Austin). Fingers crossed that this and other SXSW selections will have life beyond the festival screens.