SXSW 2010 Wrap Up

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Get Low
Directed by Aaron Schneider

After the screening for director Aaron Schneider’s debut film, most of the audience questions were some variation of “Who are you and how the hell did you swing Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray?”  The answer, though, seems clear enough after seeing the picture. Get Low, the story of an infamous hermit (Duvall) who plans his own, premortem, funeral with money-grubbing mortician Bill Murray, has just the kind of quirky, sneakily complex characters that Hollywood actors must relish playing.  And the actors all do very well, making this a worthwhile rent, but they are sadly working from an oversimplified, transparently manipulative script.

The story, set in 1930s Tennessee, is apparently based on true events, but the specifics of the tale are an invention of the filmmakers.  The idea the screenwriters came up with is that this hermit, who is really just a good guy, forced himself into solitude because he was wracked with guilt over some past transgression.  And thus, in many ways, the whole film feels elaborately designed to facilitate a well attended confessional soliloquy from Duvall.  To be fair, that scene is pretty good, and the audience at SXSW responded appropriately, but the reveal nonetheless feels false, and a little too easy, given the subtle work Duvall put in over Low‘s running time.  The notion of a hermit, known for miles around, organizing a gathering (i.e. “funeral”) where folks can share stories and celebrate life is certainly fascinating, but Get Low doesn’t quite live up to its premise.

If you catch this one (out in July!), go to see Duvall try on his best grizzled old man, or watch Murray run away with every scene he is in, or even get lost in the beautiful wooded scenery of early 20th century America. There’s plenty to enjoy about Get Low, but it’s a frustratingly flawed piece.

Mr. Nice
Directed by Bernard Rose
Feature length biopics tend to come with some inherent problems–notably that it is difficult to compress the span of a life into a satisfying, two hour, space. As such, giving depth to secondary characters and maintaining a driving tension are harder ventures.  Mr. Nice, the new biopic of Welsh anti-hero Howard Marks, is not immune to these inherent pitfalls, but this stylish, globe-trotting tale works right past them.
For those unfamiliar with Howard Marks, he was an international hashish dealer as well as wife and father, who spent 7 years in prison for his crimes.  The story is not much more complex than that, a fact which this movie benefits from, and is simply the tale of a good man who happened to be a very prominent and skilled drug dealer. Because of this, the story avoids becoming just a series of strung together vignettes, coming across instead as a type of origin story.
The first lesson to be learned from Mr. Nice is that Rhys Ifans, always the bridesmaid, can carry a film of this magnitude.  Perhaps aided by his longtime friendship with Marks, Ifans disappears into the role, delivering a hilarious a loving portrait of the titular character.  In fact, real life Mr. Nice ought to be flattered by Ifans depiction. Chloe Sevigny is also good as Marks’ wife, but she’s underused in a thin role.  The supporting cast is never bad, with a few, such as David Thewlis, distinguishing themselves with hilarious, full-throttle, performances.
Director Bernard Rose (of Candyman fame), deserves credit for crafting such a surreal, stylized film.  And the manic energy of the whole piece allows for some cost cutting measures–such as having Ifans play the character from age 18 to age 40, or the hypnotic use of stock footage green screening–that actually work.  However, the film is too long and occasionally aimless.  There are also some confusing moments where it’s unclear where anyone is, geographically speaking, and some other moments of strained badassery.  But, generally, the film is funny and cool throughout, and serves as a good introduction to the infamous Howard Marks.

Skeletons
Directed by Nick Whitfield

Bennett and Marcus (Andrew Buckley and Paul Dallison) are two Ghostbuster types at a company that offers couples and the like a hard to resist product: they can dig up anyone’s deepest, darkest secrets.  In metaphorical terms, that means the two can come to your house and clean the skeletons (got it?) right out of your closet.  After a couple routine jobs, and a spell of bickering about regulations and empathy, the two are tasked with finding the 8 years missing husband of a 8 years kooky lady.  Mystery and conflict ensue.  The story is not quite as simple as that, but the world here has so many tiny rules and quirks that it is worth discovering it on your own.

For much of the running time of Skeletons, which is Nick Whitfield’s first feature length film, it is tremendously unique, unpredictable and hilarious.  The british humor is firing brilliantly from frame one, and Whitfield’s balance of wit and pathos appears to be about perfect.  It’s not, unfortunately.  The first sign that this is, in fact, a flawed film, is that Bennett and Marcus complete their sacred duty by literally (literally!) finding a closet in a house and entering it, Chronicles of Narnia style. This isn’t inherently a bad idea, but the science fiction elements of the film are a bit harder to swallow when they are actual physical manifestations of the titular idiom.

And that’s the problem with Skeletons in a nutshell: it’s far too neat.  Nearly eighty percent of the movie is just awesome, full of unexpected twists and fascinating ideas.  But the rest of the film involves forcing that wild, exciting majority into a neat little box. All the characters must have not just a resolution, but a philosophical awakening.  Spoilers: The silent girl must finally speak; our lead, who is addicted to this strange, hard-to-explain-in-a-short-review magic, must overcome that addiction in the most symbolic way possible; the kooky woman must get over her husband and find solace in the arms of our other lead. And the result is a movie which feels much more real and tangible when it is pushing made-up witchery than when it is dealing in high stakes human emotions.

****

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields
Directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara

This decade in the works documentary about enigmatic grump Stephin Merritt and his band The Magnetic Fields, is an enlightening, funny look into the internal workings of a not-famous-enough band. It may, however, be preaching the Merritt gospel right back to his enthusiastic, endlessly loving choir.

The film is a healthy mix of performance and behind the scenes footage, and, while the performance footage goes a small ways in introducing the merits of Merritt to the uninitiated, it’s what is behind the scenes that really makes Strange Powers worthwhile.  Outsiders might find these scenes dull and meandering, but, for Magnetic Fields fans, seeing Merritt and best friend/band contributor Claudia Gonson’s intimate back-and-forth should be worth the price of admission alone. The way the two interact is incredibly revealing of both of them, and it is fascinating to watch the creative energy between the two turn quickly into petty bickering and back again.

The direction is comfortable and adept, with only a few scenes, like one involving the accusations of bigotry lodged at Merritt, appearing calculated and sensational.  For Merritt’s part, when not arranging music with Gonson, he speaks dryly and candidly about his creative process (which kind-of-shockingly involves gay dance clubs) and his relationship with music. Merritt remains an enigma by the end credits–part of his adorable bastard charm is his calculated emotional distance–but there are enough moments of wonderful humanity and self-consciousness to threaten to tear his facade right off.

****

The Thorn In The Heart 
Directed by Michel Gondry
Even for a filmmaker with as personal a vision as Michel Gondry, The Thorn in The Heart is an intimate film.  It’s not intimate in the sense that he’s finally indulging in his unique quirks and bearing his artist’s soul on screen; Gondry’s been doing that for years. Thorn is literally a documentary about Michel Gondry’s mother.  And it plays as the most artful, moving home video you may be privileged to see.
Those unfamiliar with Gondry, and even fans to some extent, will be befuddled by this film without a proper introduction.  Whether true or not, this feels like a movie that Gondry made for his family, and then, once complete, decided to put through the festival circuit, because, seriously, who’s going to say no to a new Michel Gondry movie?  The purpose of the documentary is to document his mother’s history, and, in a way, preemptively eulogize her.  The (likely intended) result is a low-key, surprisingly compelling portrait of a strong, proud woman with a wealth of complex relationships and accumulated baggage.
Thorn could certainly be criticized as self-indulgent, and even impenetrably personal.  It certainly drags on occasion, and there are many scenes that would obviously be more interesting to watch as a family member.  But the magic of the film is that it draws you in, makes you a family member, and let’s you leave the theater with a new, vicarious, lineage.  It is also a beautifully constructed film.  Gondry let’s the camera linger, never cutting when you quite expect; he’s much more interested in presenting scenes and stories than single moments.  Several quirky interludes remind us who made the film, and a reoccurring cut to a toy train, seeming at first to be typical Gondry playfulness, is revealed to have much more significant meaning. The documentary is also refreshingly self-aware–another element that lends to its home video likeness–with characters frequently referencing its creation, and, adorably, a family screening of the film is even included.
As with Strange PowersThorn may be a for-fans-only deal.  But, also like the Merritt doc, Gondry’s latest rewards fans with a revealing peek behind the curtain.  Having met Gondry’s family, and watched him relate to them, his other films incur a deeper significance.  I’d recommend that this kind of endeavor ought to be standard procedure for all film auteurs, but I’m not sure any filmmakers could pull this off quite so well.
– Emmett Duff




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