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Friday, March 14, 2014

SXSW Film Roundup - Day Seven

By David Massey

After the shameful events of last night's drunk driving accidents and my personal debacle with parking I thought I'd be wise, find a garage away from the hub of the city, and shuttle in by bus. Little did I know that the ‘night owl’ drive back would result in 2 yelling scuffles with pedestrians, a very near miss with a brand new muscle car, and my having to beg the bus driver not to pull over on the side of the road, turn the engine off and just give up. You really can't win but the atmosphere is still great here in Austin… you know, for madhouse. I started my day with some fluffy pop-culture nostalgia (‘Beyond Clueless’), had more fun than I ever expected with ‘Frank’, rediscovered a transcendent short film (‘Blood Pulls a Gun’), and ended the day with the stomach-turning shock of ‘The Mule’.

'Beyond Clueless' (directed by Charlie Lyne)

More of a walk down memory lane than a deconstruction of cinema, director Charlie Lyne ('The Best Films Ever') has whittling together a collage of sequences from High School-set teen movies ranging from 'Clueless' to 'American History X' with the pretense of exploring the relevance of a genre that lends itself to everything from high-art to horror. The narration from Fairuza Balk ('Return to OZ' / 'The Craft') focuses on 13 or 14 films highlighting themes like conformity, rebellion, sexual awakening (and its repression), to acceptance of self and finding a path to adulthood. At times, the cohesion of Lyne's thesis is a bit lost in grand montages of violence and teenage masturbation (literally) but there are some insightful elaborations on the homo-erotic subtexts within films like 'Jeepers Creepers' and 'EuroTrip' that shed light on what can be read between the lines of these seemingly banal scripts. Many of the analyses seem redundant and, unfortunately, the filmmaker overlooks half a century of likeminded films-from 'Rebel without a Cause' to 'The Breakfast Club'-as if proposing that this was a history that began in 1992 with 'Fire Walk with Me'; it’s not likely a coincidence that the director was born the year after. The resulting film gives the impression of personal reminiscence-fan film territory-rather than the proposed exploration of the, back-and-forth, cultural influence within the American zeitgeist. I'm sure I'm showing my age a bit-and this was definitely a fun way to start my day-but I've seen most of the 200+ films referenced and I didn't come away from this documentary with any brave new insights about them or the teenages they depict.

'Frank' (directed by Lenny Abrahamson)

Often, when sitting through screenings that push the limits of my cinefile patience, I wonder if I'm going to accomplish even the most basic of constructive comments. Ironically, with 'Frank', I was so knocked down with absolute glee that I don't know where to begin. Co-screenwriters Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan ('The Men Who Stare at Goats') and director Lenny Abrahamson ('What Richard Did') have constructed a story that is totally effortless in its tone and ability to hit all the right comic keys. The cast is fantastic with Domhnall Gleeson (‘About Time’ / ‘Black Mirror’) playing Jon, a small-town wanna-be musician who finds himself in the serendipitous position to fill in as the keyboardist in an art-rock band (think 'Talking Heads' crossed with 'Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds') lead by the eccentric Frank (Michael Fassbender), a troubled man whose psychosis requires that he never take off his massive-eyed, fishbowl mask–often pleading that he 'has a certificate' to prove it. The best description I can give for Fassbender's Frank is of a good-natured Hunter S. Thompson as a child with Asperger’s syndrome; it's really quite a performance, especially considering it’s done without ever seeing his face. Maggie Gyllenhaal's (‘The Dark Knight’ / ‘Secretary’) avant-garde Clara is underplayed and with a deadpan hilarity that never shows the slightest wink or parody. As Jon begins to introduce the prospect of fame and popularity, his already distrusting band mates become skeptical as Frank's stability and creativity begins to unravel. I'm not sure the whole audience got the joke but this by far the most fun I’ve had with a film this year – SXSW or otherwise.

‘Blood Pulls a Gun’ (director Ben Briand)

During the months leading up to SXSW, in an effort to help the programmers select from the hundreds submitted, I screen short films-a lot of them. As an embargo, until they become public, I have to bite my tongue to keep from talking about the ones that have really excited me; ‘Blood Pulls a Gun’ stood above the rest. A teenage girl, Alice (Odessa Young), lives with her father in an isolated Australian resort hotel that has seen better days. She spends her time looking through keyholes and alleviates her boredom by stealing little knick-knacks from the few guests that pass through. When a mysterious stranger, played by Josh McConville (‘The Infinite Man’), and his lover check in, her life gets much more complicated. Both the performances and the look of the film are excellent but I remember being worried that narrative would take a back-seat to tone and atmosphere. Not so. It is very rare to pull off 'erotic' successfully and this does it in spades. The build in tension is so enthralling and the film’s ending is so distressing that I have to give great respect to director Ben Briand and, writer, Kevin Koehler. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

‘The Mule’ (directed by Tony Mahony & Angus Sampson)

If the worth of a film is measured in its audience's response, the woman dry-heaving next to me definitely got her money's worth. Set in 1983, a working class simpleton, Ray Jenkins-played by co-director Angus Sampson (‘Insidious’ / ‘100 Bloody Acres’)-is detained in at a West Australia airport upon returning home from Bangkok where he was convinced to ingest and transport 20 condoms full of heroin. The initial tone of the film signals that this might be a comedy of some sort but any sense of humor is swiftly lost as a cruel group of police officers (lead by Hugo Weaving in one of his most intimidating rolls to date) starts (let’s say) ‘pressing progress’ toward resolving the case as Ray struggles to ‘postpone the discovery’ of his guilt–lots of innuendo here-throughout 10 days of observation. Along the way, Ray’s circumstance results in a domino effect that uncovers crimes far larger than his own. I couldn’t stay for the Q&A but the film is presented as having been based on true events and, as unbelievable as it was, I never questioned it for a moment. Though Google provides a slew of 1983 Australian drug smugglers, I can’t find a single reference to these events and, as much as I liked this film, if they pulled a ‘Fargo’ on me, I adore it. Co-directors Tony Mahoney & Angus Sampson bring new meaning to anal retentive with this very different sort of horror film.

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