South By Southwest (SXSW) is gaining more and more legitimacy as time goes by. The 25 year old festival may not be a household name like Sundance or Cannes just yet, however, Austin’s booming film community grows exponentially each year and slowly creeps into the social consciousness. Some consider this to be the birthplace of the mumblecore genre and thus shy away from it’s low budget/naturalistic fare. For the time being, the films debuted here are delegated to the fringe, indie movie seekers. But Hollywood has taken notice and the powers that be have begun poaching talented, up and coming filmmakers such as Jay and Mark Duplass, Jeffrey Blitz, Gareth Edwards, Lena Dunham, and a handful more.
SXSW seems to be at the front of the new school of American filmmaking, a place where experimentation and narrative innovation still occur. So, understand that many of these films will fade from memory soon after their release. Be that as it may, a small few will etch a lasting impression and propagate new momentum in this oh-so-fantastic art form.
The Last Fall
This marks Matthew A. Cherry’s directorial debut with what appears to be a timely film. It follows Kyle Bishop (Lance Gross), a 25 year old NFL star who suddenly finds himself out of work, strapped for cash and no clear plan for the future. Unemployment is raw territory for the freshman director. Based on current trends, audiences seem to prefer escapist spectacle of vigilante crime fighters, flesh eating zombies and/or space exploration as opposed to the realities of our situation. It’s interesting to see the subject matter taken on, but the lack of any dialogue in this trailer is a bit troubling. This isn’t a flashy story with epic visuals that speak for themselves so it’s hard to say whether this film has anything to offer. Furthermore, the pacing is clunky and muddled with middle of the road cinematography, with the exception of a few well composed -presumably Nike inspired – shots. I suppose, word of mouth (aka rottentomatoes.com, imdb.com ratings) is the only real way to determine if this is worth our time.
I don’t mean to spew hate on someone’s initial outing. Mr. Cherry clearly has some talent, evidenced by the seasoned professionals he’s attracted to the project. Keith David and Harry Lennix are two underrated actors with very impressive bodies of work. They alone may be reason enough to check this one out. That is, if their roles occupy a substantial amount of screen time and aren’t otherwise ornamental set pieces.
Beauty is Embarrassing
This film reminds me of Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. For those of you who haven’t seen it: go watch it on netflix right now! It’s a brilliant documentary on the man behind Elmo, Kevin Clash. Likewise, Beauty Is Embarrassing appears to be doing the same for Wayne White, a man whose work has evidently played a huge role in the creative direction of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The few glimpses we get of White draws him as a sort of mad scientist with a mix of hysterical charisma and maniacal scheming. The excitement then broadens to include interviews from other pioneers, presenting interesting bits of insight into who this man is. It’s great to see Matt Groening (creator of the Simpsons), composer Mark Mothersbaugh, and Paul Reubens (Pee Wee himself) speaking up. Plus, the extensive behind the scenes footage of White is ingeniously utilized in this trailer. I suppose 20+ years in the entertainment business would supply anyone with ample footage for a documentary. Luckily, this footage is of the very colorful and talented Chris White.
Somebody Up There Likes Me
This is an obvious case of actors taking their careers in their own hands. The script was written by the three leads. Fans of NBC’s Parks And Rec will recognize a bearded Nick Offerman as the comic relief. He seems to be attempting a Will Ferrel type of approach, blatantly stating the inappropriate, but it’s not coming across well here. Likewise, Keith Paulson and Jess Weixler (the other 2 writers) have moments where they appear to be reading their lines instead of honestly delivering them. It’s inspiring to see these actors take the initiative of making something on their own, however, the effort is a little forced here. The fault may lie with Bob Byington directing or the actor-writers’ inability to distance themselves from the writing process and truly dive into their characters. Whatever the case, this trailer is less than inspiring.
The Taiwan Oyster
Once again, here’s an example of three actor-writers crafting their own film to star in. However, here they have set a consistent tone – as far as this trailer is concerned. The ominous chanting that underscores shots of the precarious situations our protagonists find themselves in is incredibly compelling. I can’t understand why this trailer works for me. It breaks many of the rules that I believe make for a good selling point: the plot is not initially made clear, the dialogue is from one scene only, and some of the filmmaking is clearly run-and-gun amateur. That said, it somehow comes together in an authentic way. This conversation that plays out under this trailer gingerly tests the boundaries of realism and sloppy indie dialogue. The way death is so nonchalantly dealt with in this speech could be enough to write this one off, but the powerful imagery of Simon (Billy Harvey) riding in the back of a pick up, the couple dancing beneath the evening fireworks, the van pulling away with the body bag, and the eclectic assortment of faces of the characters they meet all adds to the atmosphere. This is a well made trailer.
Don’t get me wrong, the film may be awful. One poor performance could be enough to sink this ship. This is the story of a group of American teachers, living abroad, who steal the body of one of their colleagues in an effort to bury the deceased honorably. It’s a strange tale to be sure but it’s original and it was made by a couple of guys who funded their film through kickstarter. They are film enthusiasts that put their time to good use by making a film and that’s something I can support.