March weather in Austin, Texas, can swing between cool and sizzling. An atmosphere of both what’s fresh and what’s hot could be said to apply to the South By Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festivals, now in its 34th year, offering an awesome array of media, technology and arts-related events. The 2017 film program was the 24th edition and proved to be stronger than ever. Over nine days some 130 features were screened — 84 world premieres and 54 by first-time filmmakers — along with 128 short films; this total selected from over 7,600 submissions. The diversity ranged from high-demand headliners to innovative low-budget independents at the critical cutting edge. Some of the most interesting work was in documentaries as well as hybrid forms blending non-fiction with dramatic elements.
While SXSW has its own distinctive approach, I was pleased to see the programming of several festival favourites which I had missed during the Sundance festival where they premiered. Notable among them were The Big Sick, a superb comedic drama drawn from real life that took the audience award in that category, and the urgent environmental documentary Chasing Coral, which was a Sundance audience award winner. More about these in subsequent columns on narrative and documentary highlights.
The festival’s opening and closing headline features certainly attracted major-league attention and, as they played only once, huge lines waiting hours for even primary badge holders to have any chance of getting in to see them. The March 10 opener, Terence Malick’s enigmatic Austin-based Song to Song (http://www.songtosongmovie.com/), was presented in the largest venue, the Paramount Theatre, a grand historic movie palace on downtown central Congress Ave. leading to the Texas state capitol. As the Paramount was not available for the March 18 closer, Daniel Espinosa’s space-based Life (http://www.lifemovie.com/) screened in the second largest venue, the very modern Zach Theatre, appropriate for a futuristic sci-fi thriller. While both films cast some of Hollywood’s biggest stars in lead roles, they could hardly be more opposite.
Terrence Malik is a Texas treasure, one of world cinema’s great original filmmakers, and his masterworks made years apart from the 1970s on will stand the test of time. That’s certainly true of the Texas-based The Tree of Life, awarded the Cannes festival’s prestigious palme d’or in 2011. But since then the aging master has been releasing lesser dramas more frequently to a more critical response. For all its cinematic promise, set against the backdrop of Austin’s celebrated music scene, Song to Song unfortunately continues that trend. It had many in the SXSW audience shaking their heads, though Richard Brody of The New Yorker subsequently penned a rapturous review. As an admirer of Malick, I would call it a magnificent misfire.
The movie has been long in the making with some footage apparently shot back as far as 2011. Snippets from music festivals, including SXSW venues, performances and backstage moments make it into various scenes of a meandering elliptical narrative structure. The central storyline is that of a lovers’ triangle that comes together, then disintegrates. The pivotal character is that of the soulful Faye (Rooney Mara), an aspiring guitarist and songstress who is sharing a bed with a ruthless high-powered hard-living record executive and cynical promoter named Cook (Michael Fassbender). Exhibiting different hairstyles and moods, Faye will be the principal channel for expressing trademark Malickian angst questioning the mystery and meaning of it all.
Into Cook’s opulent starry surroundings arrives “BV” (Ryan Gosling), another aspiring musician and songwriter. The lure of what Cook can offer — making it in the music business — is strong. When Faye and BV fall for each other she continues to sleep with Cook. The threesome even enjoy a seemingly happy-go-lucky jaunt to Mexico by private jet. Of course this unstable triangle soon falls apart. Cook picks up Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a waitress in a restaurant, and transforms her into a high-fashion spousal accessory, an arrangement doomed to tragedy. Holly Hunter makes an appearance as Rhonda’s mother. The serial attractions of beautiful women continue as Cook becomes involved with the lovely Amanda (Cate Blanchett). In another sub-narrative there’s even a passing lesbian flirtation that introduces a French-speaking woman, Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), into the tangle of confounding relationships. Most go nowhere except for that between Faye and BV, which is somewhat of a relief, though this only happens after he abandons the snares of musical dreams for a simpler life working in the Texas oil patch.
As usual with Malick, much of the spoken word is in the form of inner stream-of-consciousness voiceovers by characters who are searching, sprinkled with hints of the transcendental beyond. (“There’s something else . . . something that wants to be found,” says one.) The bond that survives between Faye and BV suggests that, in forgiveness, “mercy has a human heart.” Other desiderata are scattered throughout, as the flow of life and love that still hasn’t found what it’s looking for (to quote a U2 lyric) moves from moment to moment, desire to desire, song to song. Occasionally legendary performers drop in to the mix — Patti Smith and Iggy Pop being two. (Famous people and actors may be curious as to who made the final cut. Christian Bale, who starred in Malick’s Knight of Cups, supposedly shot a number of scenes of which there is no evidence.)
For all its fractured, at times exasperating storylines, the movie can still entrance through the striking poetic cinematography of multiple Oscar winner and longtime Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki. The roving camera is as restless as the characters — gliding, swooping, swooning through a raucous world that seems perpetually off balance. The only sense of repose is when that is left behind and the magic sunset hour descends on a Texas field. Strangely for a 130-minute opus titled Song to Song, the fragments of music are not particularly memorable. There is no song that stands out, unlike Gosling’s crowd-pleasing turn in La La Land.
No one should expect light-hearted musical romance from Malick. The famously reclusive 73-year-old director makes no concessions to popular tastes. It was a surprise when he appeared on a morning after an interview with Fassbender and another renowned Austin filmmaker, Richard Linklater, whose Everybody Wants Some! had opened last year’s festival. Malick has never seen any need to explain himself or his methods.
South By Southwest Festival director Janet Pierson introduces the team behind Life at its SXSW world premiere March 18. (Photo by Gerald Schmitz)
For something completely different, SXSW chose Life, a high-profile big-budget mainstream movie to close the festival. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa helms an international cast, members of a six-person Mars Pilgrim 7 mission operating the orbiting International Space Station (ISS) when a probe to Mars returns carrying material from the red planet. The lead scientists are Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), a disabled man who needs no wheelchair in the weightless atmosphere, and Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), a microbiologist with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention who has knowledge not shared with the others — engineering specialist Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Japanese technician Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), Russian cosmonaut Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya), and physician David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), the longest in space who has worked in war zones and seems relieved to have left such earthly places behind.
Hugh subjects the Martian samples to intensive examination under conditions of extreme temperature variation and different concentrations of atmospheric elements, eventually focusing on what appears to be a single-cell organism. When under Hugh’s efforts it emerges from a dormant state, begins to move and grow, the news of the discovery of a life form beyond earth provokes global excitement. A girl in Time Square calls it “Calvin” and the nickname sticks. The tiny creature, which looks like a gelatinous starfish, exhibits remarkable properties. Another new life is celebrated when Sho watches his wife giving birth to their child by video link.
Soon, however, wonder turns to horror and then terror as contact is lost with earth and the evolving Calvin proves to be anything but benign, possessed of protean and indestructible powers. Rory is its first victim, followed by Hugh whose last words are “Calvin doesn’t hate us, he just needs to kill us to survive.” Set to a pounding propulsive score, surviving crew members make furious efforts to try to contain and destroy the alien monster that must be stopped from reaching earth at all costs. Finally it’s down to David and Miranda who share some soulful parting moments. Is this the end of the world as we know it?
Life certainly lives up to its tagline: “Be careful what you search for. We were better off alone.” With superior set design and visual effects, and a script from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Zombieland), it’s better and smarter than any “Mars attacks” B-movie genre. Comparisons with Alien are inevitable. Indeed earlier in the festival Ridley Scott was present to show his 1979 classic along with a sneak peek at scenes from the highly anticipated sequel Alien: Covenant due out in May. Life isn’t a mere inferior knockoff. It develops an original scenario of the mystery of extraterrestrial life that devolves into an entertaining high-octane dose of sci-fi thrills and chills.
It may be questioned whether such movies with big stars need the exposure given them by festivals. Within days of SXSW Life was in multiplexes across North America. Song to Song had a theatrical release before the festival ended, albeit far more limited. Headline premieres generate a lot of media buzz judging from the hordes of paparazzi they attract. The hope is that this will also draw attention to the broader festival program and the smaller screen gems within it.