Friday, March 18, 2005

DAY FOUR: Kids These Days

You're Gonna Miss Me **1/2
Documentary on Roky Erickson, a musical legend primarily known for fronting the 13th Floor Elevators, who pioneered psychedelic rock. This doc was the top of my list of music docs to see, because he's the closest to the line of influences on me and my band members.

But this documentary has very little to say about his music, instead focusing on his relationship to his mother. Roky experimented heavily with drugs in the 60s and 70s, which led to his incarceration in a mental institution where he was treated with shock therapy. Since all of this, his mental health has deteriorated. He would often drown out the voices in his head by having multiple televisions and radios on loudly in his house at the same time. He lived with his mother in this state for a long time, and she didn't allow him to take drugs to help correct his mental health.

Ultimately, the filmmakers didn't come up with enough really interesting material to craft into a film. Also, it is non-chronological and the editing choices do not leave one with a clear picture of how his mental health progressed over his life.

The highlight for me: seeing Roky in person.

Kissing on the Mouth ***
This film blends audio from interviews of college-aged youth about sex and relationships with a narrative about four such youth and their relationships. Very explicit by American standards, but the most extraordinary thing to me was how the director shot in detail, so while conversations are going on we see little things like fidgeting.

The film is slow (though I do not ever consider this a negative thing on it's own), and at first I didn't understand why I should care about seeing these characters doing very mundane things such as brushing their teeth, dressing and.... masturbating in the shower. But then I realized how little these things are photographed.

The four-member cast was also the complete crew, and all four were in attendance. They had a lot of intelligent things to say about their movie. Though it's far from a masterpiece, I think they have a point about how certain things are never shown on film, and some things like sex are never shown in the ordinary, mundane way they normally happen. Sex in American film is either romanticized heavily (and shows only certain things), or it is porn.

A Hole in My Heart **
A Swedish drama, directed by Lukas Moodysson (Lilya 4-ever), about four people in an apartment, making amateur porn for the Internet. It focuses (usually) on Eric, the teenaged son of Rickard who is filming the porn, and how he is so distant from his father and the revolting occurences that are going on in their living room.

The movie is intentionally shocking to the point where there is nothing else to the movie. There is no development in the plot or the characters, though the film tries to hint at what went on in their lives to bring them to this pathetic state. The saving graces of the film or the interesting character of Eric, and the respite of the final, hopeful scenes.

The Edukators ****
Here, finally, is a masterpiece among the contemporary, politically-conscious German films. Daniel Bruehl (of last year's excellent Goodbye, Lenin!) co-stars as one of three German youth who call themselves "The Edukators". They break into rich peoples' mansions, and without stealing or damaging anything, they rearrange the furniture and leave a message: "Your days of plenty are numbered".

But this is just the first half of the film. Then, one of their break-ins goes wrong and they end up kidnapping one of their victims to keep him from identifying them. They go to an abandoned cabin in the mountains to decide their next step, and end up discovering they have quite a bit in common with their victim.

I'm not going to lie, some people will probably find this film a bit slow (it's 2hrs and 15 mins) and didactic, but the political conversations in the film are brilliantly written and from a point-of-view which respects how different people can be liberal or conservative (and how the same person can be liberal in his/her youth and conservative in middle-age). Great performances and great direction and an unexpected ending that should leave you giggling inside.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

DAY THREE: The Reeker

I was busy with other things Sunday, so the only film I got to go see was the world premiere of "Reeker", one of the midnight screenings at the Drafthouse.

Reeker ***1/2
I'm not very experienced when it comes to horror movies, it's difficult to find the ones that are good. And to me, this one was extremely entertaining. It's got great humor which relieves it of its overseriousness (the kind of thing that often makes a horror movie seem cheesy). It uses quite a few of the stock horror movie devices, but it uses them effectively and sometimes in slightly different ways. The addition of a blind character makes for some great setups (wish I knew if this was a completely original an idea to horror or not). The only downside was that it was painfully obvious what the big "reveal" ending was going to be. It sets up quite a mysterious atmosphere, which makes you wonder what's behind everything, and even tries to set-up misleading clues. I predicted the ending, but I still think it was well done.

Also, the special effects and makeup are tremendous - some of the best I've ever seen in a horror film. The first two minutes of the movie packs an amazing unexpected punch, that left the audience screaming and yelling "thank you, Dave!" (the director, who was in the theatre). And pay attention to the credits at the end: they're hilarious!

DAY TWO: A Gift for the Father

Uh-oh, I'm getting behind. Without further ado... I saw some music videos on Saturday, which I'll review later, and two films:

Tell Them Who You Are ***1/2
A fascinating documentary revealing the personal life of legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, by his son Mark Wexler. There are some incredible moments here that could never have been captured, had the subject been anyone but Wexler. He is famously ultra-left wing, while his son is politically apathetic (leaning conservative, probably to differentiate himself from his father). Their relationship is difficult, because Wexler is a difficult man. He is very opinionated and not very inclined to soften his criticism, even for his son.

This is where the film became particularly interesting to me. As Haskell Wexler began his career primarily as a documentarian, he is critiquing his son throughout the film for both his camerawork and his ideas about how to make a documentary about someone. So the film is very self-aware about its own process.

It is also interesting to see and have Mark Wexler himself acknowledge the mistakes he makes early on in the process of shooting his father. For one, he lost some interviews with some great stars at a party, because he wasn't monitoring the audio. But by the end of shooting you can tell that he's improved, and his editor did a great job of fashioning a terrific film from the footage.

The Puffy Chair ***
It's a road trip comedy, but one that stands alone as something completely new. The combination of a great script and great actors creates three characters who really seem like people you have known.

A twenty-something has ordered a puffy armchair online that is exactly like one his father used to own and love. He is going to go on a road trip down the east coast, pick the chair up along the way, and take it to his father for his birthday. Tagging along are his girlfriend, with whom things are not going altogether smoothly, and his brother, who invites himself.

The puffy chair and the road trip and the brother are catalysts, by which the boy and his girlfriend have their relationship tested. The story flows well and is very intelligent about portraying a relationship falling apart. Some may think it ends rather abruptly, but it's quite symmetrical with the introduction. And the final scene with the father (played by the father of the Duplass brothers, who wrote, directed and star in the film) is excellent.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Ain't Ain't-It-Cool Cool?...

Awesome. So I got my first ever review published at Ain't It Cool News, so that's pretty cool. Part of it is just me getting over-geeky, but more importantly I wanted to get some attention for Deadroom. It's not really something that I think most people are going to go out of their way to see, unless word gets around that it's really good. Doing my part for the little films.

I have to say, the festival this year has been fairly kick-ass so far. There have been way too many "technical difficulty" delays, incorrect framings and audio issues, but the films themselves have been really good. I don't have time yet to publish the full report, but I saw the music video program and two really good films: Tell Them Who You Are and The Puffy Chair. I can highly recommend both of them. Check the SXSW Website for more info, of course. I'm off to try my damnedest to get into Unleashed.

DAY ONE: The Good, The Bad and Digital Video

As often happens, plans went awry, and I ended up seeing a different film than I intended Friday. After seeing at the Convention Center, I arrived at the Paramount Theatre a full hour early hoping to get in on the world premiere of The Wendell Baker Story, but the film pass line had already wrapped halfway around the block. I was told the film badge line (conference attendees who get priority seating) was the same length, and wrapped around the other side of the block.

Long story short, I didn't get in. So I went to the Dobie and saw a much smaller premiere, but one that well made up for all the previous disappointments. *1/2
Written, directed, produced, photographed and edited by a single man - Jason Tomaric - is quite a technical achievement and is indicative of the growth of affordable digital video technology. It was shot for only $25,000, and includes some fairly good CG special effects.

But this science fiction epic fails horribly at connecting with the audience in any tangible way. The digital photography was just plain bad, trying to get away with more than the medium (most likely mini-DV) could handle, and the audio recording was spotty too (though some of this could have been the presentation). A film like this can still work with characters and story that are compelling enough. But the script is horribly dry, and the actors were just doing the best they could with it.

The structure of the plot is hardly existent. It is narrated (in an annoying, post-apocalyptic, "this is how it all happened" sort of way), by Derek Stromburgh, chancellor of New Athens, one of many cities reestablished after a global nuclear war. This was the first mistake: the character is also the closest thing to an antagonist in the movie, a man who is willing to sacrifice thousands of unwilling people to find one who's genetic structure will somehow magically be "the one" who can be cloned into a perfect human race to survive the nuclear holocaust. Whatever.

Meanwhile, other characters take the stage for sections of the film, even though later in the film we discover the precedings are all supposed to be memories. Little more can I say without giving anything away, but the film relies on too many sci-fi stereotypes and cliches that have already been done in Hollywood with budgets to do them right. What's the point in a low-budget version of a Hollywood B-movie?

Deadroom ***1/2 (+)
Also shot on mini-DV, and for very little money, this film not only takes some major risks, but succeeds and is haunting in ways I've never seen before in film.

Four filmmakers each wrote and directed their own section of the film; the four sections were then weaved together. Each section takes place with just two characters in a single, sparsely-decorated room. One of the characters is dead and one of the characters is alive. The film metaphorically asks: if you could speak to someone who's dead, who would it be and what would you ask?

The four sections contrast boldly, from cute, humorous, emotional and tense, and yet they still - by what has got to be sheer cinematic miracle - blend together seamlessly into a compelling poem.

This was the film's world premiere. I was in the front row of the tiny Egyptian room of the Dobie theatre. All four directors (James M. Johnston, Nick Prendergast, Yen Tan, and David Lowry) were in attendance for Q&A. They and most of the cast are from Dallas, and shot the film in just 9 days: enough time for only one or two takes for each shot. The performances from all of the cast still are quite amazing.

Hopefully, this title will become available in the future, because it deserves to be seen. Special mark (+) for highly original presentation.

Friday, March 11, 2005

SXSW Starts Friday

The minute I get out of class on Friday, it will be Spring Break, and I will be going straight to the Dobie Theatre for the first film of the SXSW Film Festival. I plan on seeing over 30 films over the week-long festival, including highly anticipated titles like Unleashed, acclaimed documentaries such as Tell Them Who You Are, Murderball and The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Asian films Oldboy and Kung Fu Hustle, European films Kontroll and The Edukators, "emerging visions" like, Deadroom and Straight Line, as well as most of the short film and music video programs.

Check back Saturday morning for reviews of, The Aristocrats, and the new Luke and Owen Wilson comedy The Wendell Baker Story.