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Thursday, March 13, 2014

SXSW Film Roundup - Day Six

By David Massey


The secret of Southby is that, through various means, you can exist almost entirely on free food, free drinks, free music, and free movies. However, without going into too much detail, I can tell you that the piper draws the gratis-line at parking; don’t dare to dream that dream. Those complications aside, it was a small but interesting day that provided a window into the mind of an unconventional artist (‘Harmontown’) and yet another example of limit-pushing, experimental filmmaking (‘Open Windows’).



'Harmontown' (directed by Neil Berkeley)


I adore director Neil Berkeley's previous documentary, 'Beauty is Embarrassing', as much for its subject (artist Wayne White) as for its casual style. It's uncanny that his subject in 'Harmontown', Dan Harmon (creator of TV's 'Community' and writer of Oscar-nominated 'Monster House') is almost, physically and intellectually, Wayne White's Doppelgänger. I'm sorry to say that I largely 'missed the boat' with Harmon's body of work: 'The Sarah Silverman Show' definitely struck me as irreverent and funny but 'Community' always seemed a bit mediocre which, in Harmon's defense, when graded on the network-sitcom curve, I do consider completely watchable and good for a giggle. 


It wasn't until Harmon's erratic work ethic got him fired from both of those creations that he found his own form of therapy in podcasting an unconventional stand-up show containing no jokes, no preparation, and the occasional Dungeon & Dragon session. The documentary follows the show's tour across the US with his cohorts, Spencer Crittenden (the awkward 'Dungeon Master' plucked from the original Los Angeles audience), Jeff Bryan Davis (comedian and TV personality), and, his girlfriend, Erin McGathy (well-known podcaster). Despite his narcissism (which is balanced by a heaping side of self-loathing) and notorious tendencies to sociopathically manipulate those around him, there is a sense from his audience that he is the Jesus of well-intentioned nerdom. I won't say that I'm a complete convert but I will absolutely subscribe to his podcast (also called 'Harmontown'); like the film, it’s honest, raw, and pretty darn hilarious.





‘Open Windows’ (directed by Nacho Vigalondo)


God bless Nacho Vigalondo (‘Timecrimes’ / ‘Extraterrestrial’); he is a madman in person and in practice. ‘Open Windows’ is another attempt at an unconventional, high-concept thriller exploring the medium of film at its heart - action through time - and in ways that no one else has even conceived of. Elijah Wood’s character is set up in a hotel in Austin having won a sweepstakes to meet his favorite actress, played by Sasha Grey - who, based on some of her IMDB titles (‘Anal Artist’ / ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ / ‘House of Ass 3’), isn’t likely a Disney alum. When Wood is notified by her representative, ‘Chord’, that she has canceled their meeting and that being rude to her fans is nothing new, as a supposed retaliation, he’s presented with the opportunity for remote access to the actress’ laptop, phone, and webcam. 


The film doesn't take much time dealing with the ethics of spying on someone but, rather, jumps right into a fast-passed thrill ride that has Wood’s character jumping for A to B to C as Chord’s true intentions unfold. The story is told in real-time, almost entirely on the screen of a laptop, with practical cameras following multiple events, and various plot points reveled through pop-up windows on the screen. The film was cleverly introduced as a modern-day ‘Rear Window’ and the gimmick does work; it took some time to get used to but, the tension ramps up quickly and, though the format is pivotal to the story, you almost forget that you’re watching anything but a standard narrative. Unfortunately, it's the technology within the narrative that stretches disbelief a bit too far as the twists and turns become more and more bizarre. I’m always curious to see what Vigalondo has up his sleeve and his ambitions did not disappoint but the limitations he imposes on himself as a filmmaker seem to have pushed the state of modern technology into the realm of ‘fantasy’ which distracts from what is, otherwise, an inventive hostage/who-dun-it scenario.


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