Harry's SXSW Wrap Up: Women In Trouble, Slammin Salmon, That Evening Sun, Haunting in Con., 500 Days of Summer + more!!!
Published at: March 24, 2009, 3:42 a.m. CST by headgeek
Hey folks, Harry here - wrapping up my SXSW coverage before cracking the DVD columns. What follows will be bite sized thoughts on these films along with photos that I took from the Q&As after their screenings. Before I begin - I really have to state that SXSW was pretty damn amazing this year. I can't remember a year with the sheer level of talent out to support their films playing the festival. This seemed to energize the screenings and the audience themselves. It's one thing to have a single member of a cast on stage - and something else to have a line-up of 9 or 10 on stage. At one level it illustrates how supportive the cast is of the film to come to Austin and SXSW - at another, it really shows just how important a festival SXSW has bloomed through the Dentler years as programmer - and now this year with Janet Pierson taking that post over. Things seem to be firing on all cylinders - that really is something that the team at SXSW, both past and present should be applauded for. Another is the sheer quality of programming - throughout the festival I was constantly hearing how good another film was, while I was missing it - watching another film that was really good. In addition - SXSW Music was really off the hook this year. The real discovery that I've heard about this year was a band called HEALTH, but Yoko will be telling you about them later on in her wrap up.
I'll kick this off with ADVENTURELAND. You'll be seeing this soon enough for yourself. After I spoke for about an hour with Sam Raimi - just working out the screening of DRAG ME TO HELL later that night - along with stories from behind the scene regarding A SIMPLE PLAN - and a bit of shop. I did tell him that all of you would be quite ecstatic if he cast Ben Kingsley as The Vulture in SPIDER-MAN 4. He confirmed that he had considered him for that role, but then stopped and stated that THAT wasn't a confirmation that the Vulture was going to have anything to do with SPIDER-MAN 4. (Thought I had him for a sec! Dagnabbit!)
Anyway - I really had to rush over to Alamo South for the big ADVENTURELAND screening. I'd already seen the film, but really wanted to watch it with Yoko - as she's been very angry at me ever since I saw it. Well, not angry, more like jealousy. I'm very fond of this movie. Especially in the way it all comes together. I love coming of age stories and this is a very specific era and type of love story that while entertaining & funny... well, it's also very honest and true feeling. The audience at SXSW really loved it and Greg Mottola and Bill Hader were on hand to greet the audience and answer their questions. As you would expect, Hader was funnier than the fat kid tripping with a trombone in Marching Band at Half Time.
Next, I rushed over to the Paramount theater to see the premiere of WOMEN IN TROUBLE - the first film in a planned & apparently shot trilogy by Sebastian Gutierrez. I thoroughly enjoyed this film - some in the audience were making Kieslowski comparisons - but I did not quite sip from that "punch bowl". The film is a very fun, sexy and complicated day in the lives of 10 beautiful women whose only commonality was the trouble they were going through this particular day. And the women... Dear Lord! Carla Gugino, Adrianne Palicki, Connie Britton, Marley Shelton, Cameron Richardson, Garcelle Beauvais, Caitlin Keats, Elizabeth Berkley and Emmanuelle Chriqui... just to name a few. Gutierrez shot this film in less than 2 weeks, and it doesn't show at all. The film and the women are beautiful - whether they're a porn star, a therapist, a bartender, callgirls or whatever else they may be. In particular - watch for a fantastic James Brolin performance - which seemed to mock Russell Brandt - hilariously so. Brolin can truly do anything! For your enjoyment - here are the lovely ladies that attended...
Next was DRAG ME TO HELL. Everyone that I spoke to for the rest of the fest just kept getting a goofy grin on their face when they recalled this screening. That film experience hasn't dulled in the slightest in the days since. Truly outstanding scary fun! And it all began with Raimi following me out on stage to a roaring 1200 - only to do a Stoogian pratfall and old school vaudeville routine, of which Yoko captured a glimpse of right here...
The audience cheered in a daze - most couldn't believe they were watching Raimi gleefully goofily pulling off wonderful vintage slapstick moves - and they were further stunned by DRAG ME TO HELL. I can not wait to see the finished film. Many effects shots were unfinished and the sound mix - was nowhere near done. However, the entertainment of even this extremely rough print was absolutely thrilling to watch play with the unsuspecting audience.
I left my camera at home by accident one day, sadly that was the OBSERVE & REPORT day - which I'll write a separate review of. But it was outstanding!
However, the film I'm most excited to talk about right now is THAT EVENING SUN - the premiere feature by Scott Teems. This film went on to win the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature of the fest - and I can absolutely see why. The very best acting of the festival, the best cinematography of the festival, the best written characters that I saw of the festival ... well, they were all found here with THAT EVENING SUN from Scott Teems...
I love strong regional filmmaking and this film actually reminded me in many ways of Craig Brewer's two wonderful Tennessee films. Like Craig - Scott Teems, who resembles one of my favorite members of The Blues Brothers' band, is also from Tennessee, where he shot this wonderful film based upon William Gay's short story. I wish to God that studios realized there is a market for a movie of this type. Like THE STRAIGHT STORY, COCOON and the best of AGING cinema - THAT EVENING SUN tells the tale of an elderly lead. Here we have Abner Meechum, as the film begins he is in an old folks home. And you can tell that he is not happy at all with it. You get the sense of the numbing routine, though we see it only once. You see the lack of passion, the lack of energy and the lack of personal space. Abner's had enough and he heads out for his old place. I won't detail every step, or how he gets there - it's wonderful, but isn't the real meat of the film. That comes when he arrives at his place, only to find that it has been leased, with an option to buy to Lonzo Choat... a man, that Abner holds in lowest esteem. Because while this film is mainly concerned with Hal Holbrook's character - and the agist issues that comes from one's family acting for the "benefit" of the elders - it is also a film about a class struggle - between a land owner and a man he considers to be poor white trash.
The struggle of Abner to reclaim what he worked his whole life for - and the struggle of Lonzo Choat to raise his family out of their station in life - are both wonderfully told. Hal Holbrook is, of course, brilliant as Abner - and Ray McKinnon plays the best, most subtle portrayal of an ignorant man trying desperately to be more than that. Both struggles are painful and to be admired. The character work is fantastic. McKinnon is amazing to watch. My favorite bit of casting in the film was Barry Corbin as a neighbor elderly man - who is no longer allowed to drive because he hit some old lady's ass. This film absolutely deserves to be seen. In particular - Rodney Taylor's brilliant cinematography is to be applauded and I hope we see much more of his work. This is a filmmaker to keep your eyes on!
This was all on St Patrick's Day - a day that I always embrace my Leprechaun spirit on. So meeting Hal Holbrook & his wife Dixie Carter and being introduced as a "person of note" in Austin was... well, pretty absurd feeling on my part. But it was such an honor to meet Hal Holbrook in person - especially after such a great performance.
Next was the re-Premiere of Tobe Hooper's first "Narrative" feature. Before TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, Tobe shot a concert film - and this psychedelic loose narrative feature called EGGSHELLS. This has long been considered "the lost Tobe Hooper" film - mainly because it wasn't available on VHS or DVD, that's about to change. Thanks to the efforts of Louis Black, known primarily as the editor of THE AUSTIN CHRONICLE - the founder of SXSW - and basically a big honking comic and film Geek that hides that beneath his layers of civic responsibilities to the city he & I love. Austin. The reason Louis wanted to strike new prints and digitally restore EGGSHELLS are no doubt endless, but for me... It is an incredibly interesting look at the filmmaker whose next film has defined Austin's independent film spirit, til Richard Linklater picked it up. Also - EGGSHELLS was shot in Austin, Texas in and around 1969. It shows a University protest regarding Kent State & the Vietnam War that was huge. So big and scary to the University here in town - that what was once a very open campus - suddenly had walls erected to divide up and prevent large gatherings of this sort. There's also a long shot down Congress Ave when the Capitol was far and away the tallest building in Austin. That shot cause audible gasps from the audience.
EGGSHELLS is an experimental film. It's a filmmaker playing with the possibilities of film, celebrating technique, sexual freedom and unconventional storytelling. As a result, it isn't really a commercial film. It's narrative focuses upon a free love sharing house - with the tenants all living with some kind of poltergeist activity - which gives Tobe the opportunity to play with ideas that were more tightly defined in POLTERGEIST, but you can definitely see the foreshadow of ideas and shot concepts here. I had only ever seen the film in 16mm, which is what it was shot on. Here - they're partly through the restoration process and it looks beautiful on the big screen. Word is we should be getting this on DVD at some point in the relatively near future. The music by Shiva's Headband is fantastically weird - as you would imagine!
In-between EGGSHELLS and THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT was a film - that I won't review. It's a very indie film that wanted to be a genre film along the lines of DEAD GIRL or MAY - and it just couldn't come close to either of those. The filmmakers did their best, and risked a lot, hopefully it'll find an audience - it certainly wasn't for me.
That brings us to THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT by Peter Cornwell. You've seen ads on AICN, you've seen that Motion Poster of the ectoplasm scene all over the net. I love haunting stories. As far back as I can remember, I've loved Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING, THE INNOCENTS and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. Then I remember when POLTERGEIST hit - it was like the end of Haunted House stories. What Spielberg and Hooper did on that film... can never be undone. But still - other filmmakers have done wonders in the genre. Films like THE OTHERS and DEVIL'S BACKBONE have continued to keep the creeps and the sadness of a great Haunting story alive.
THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT seemed to be cut more from THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE type of cloth. At least that is what I was hoping when I went in. The elements are certainly there. The story purports to be a true story about a family going through the modern nightmare of a child with Cancer. Their first born is undergoing ungodly treatments to defeat his cancer and the long drives to the hospital that can treat him are torture and torment on the mother played by Virginia Madsen. Her son is played by Kyle Gallner. They are both the best things about this film. I like Kyle's Matt - he feels like a boy struggling to keep it together. When he enters his new home, he doesn't tell anyone about the visions he's seeing. The terrible things that he is tormented with. He wants his treatments to continue, he wants to live - and he's scared that if he says anything... it could mean his life. That's a fantastic device for not just getting the hell out of dodge. It is also a great device for ignoring what you're seeing. Two key problems with most Haunting stories.
We learn quickly that the House they've rented to be near the hospital was once an old Funeral Parlor - and not just any Funeral Parlor, but one that was owned by a spiritualist that ran seances and performed black rites at. All of this is fine. All of this is good for us to enjoy. The problem is... I'm not sure if it was Peter Cornwell or Lionsgate... but the way the film was edited, the way the music was mixed. It was terribly annoying. Crazy unnecessary jump scares that came off forced. Loud erratic noises, strained violins... All of it - unnecessary. There's good stuff here, it's just all chopped up and amped up to where none of it feels real.
I have this phrase I use when talking about film sometimes. "A shiny penny" - it comes from SOMEWHERE IN TIME. Christopher Reeve sees a penny from his era - and it shocks him out of the time traveling reality that had him with Jane Seymour. Ruining his perfect existence. The term, as I use it, is in reference to scenes or devices that wake you out of the film you're watching. That keep you from being on board the story.
When a horror film tells you that it is based on a TRUE STORY. There's a contract that you've made with the audience. You've told them that this is real, this is valid, this is true. And I was on board for a lot of the film. But with that - I don't need blaring music, banging and music video editing. I don't need CGI morphing walls that turn from real to Necromantic carved flesh - and if the walls do do that - it better look solid and not pixelly, like they do here.
By the time the film ended, I wasn't actively HATING the experience, but I was not going to be supportive. That all changed in the Q&A afterwards when they marched up in front of us not just the director, but THE REAL WOMAN UPON WHOM THIS STORY WAS BASED... Sara Campbell...
She's a rather intense looking woman, right? Well, below frame here - she was clutching her rosary - and when she was first introduced, my sphincter tightened up and I was suddenly confronted with someone that was saying "THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED TO ME!" We had just seen some pretty intense images - but TRUE? I am someone like Mulder. I want to believe. But in the Q&A - someone asked about the bodies in the wall of the Funeral Home. Probably the creepiest, possibly real, thing in the film. And she answered with, "I'm not going to dissect what did and did not happen," and I suddenly found myself angry at her and the film. Angry because - you know what... Haunting stories don't need grotesque cadavers with carved writing in their flesh - in TRUE Haunting stories - less is more. Be true to your audience. Whatever happened in that house, in reality, her son came away cured of cancer - that's verifiable with the doctors where he was being treated. The doctors have no idea how he was cured, but that boy is now 44 and with children. THAT IS REALITY. But to SAW this story up with loud bullshit cuts and ludicrous imagery... it is a disservice to the audience and a slap to horror fans. And it's just shoddy filmmaking period.
The next day was a slow day for SXSW with me. There was only one film that I wanted to see. I had seen over 20 at this point - and that combined with writing and no sleep - I needed to decompress a bit. Also - THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT really left a sour taste in my mouth - in a festival that was really quite something. I needed to rest. The next film I saw was THE SLAMMIN' SALMON from the wonderful comedy troupe, Broken Lizard.
I love these guys. They make a specific type of comedy that I love, that we don't see much of these days. They're essentially trying to keep team comedy films like those that the Marx Brothers, The Ritz Brothers, The Bowery Boys and others kept going in a Hollywood of long ago. They're broad comedies, with great team work and timing at play. I loved their past projects - and this was no different.
This time at the helm was Kevin Heffernan, directing for his very first time - and doing a wonderful job with this very funny ensemble cast. In addition to his Broken Lizard brothers, the film stars Michael Clarke Duncan, Lance Henriksen, Michael Jai WHite, Sendhil Ramamurthy and many more. The loose excuse for the insanity that follows is based upon the life of Steve Lemme of Broken Lizard. Basically - Steve worked at a New York eatery, thought he had made it, only to find he still needed his waiting job - and had to go back. So Steve took the head writing position on this project - due to his life experiences.
The Slammin' Salmon is a restaurant that former Heavyweight Champion, Cleon 'Slammin' Salmon, is the owner of. In a bad bet with the Yakuza of Japan - he finds himself needing a spare $20,000 in cash - and doesn't have it, unless the restaurant can earn it in a single night. If he can't - he loses this amazing establishment to the Yakuza. He charges the manager of the Restaurant to fire up the help to raise that money asap. Hilarity ensues. The film had the audience laughing and smiling throughout. You definitely owe it to yourself if you're a Broken Lizard fan to check this out. It's a very fun film. Also on hand at the screening was Erik Stolhanske...
The last film of the fest I saw was the Sundance 2009 fave, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, the premiere feature by famed Music Video director - Marc Webb. As the film informs us, this isn't a Love Story, but a Story about Love - and that is very very accurate. This isn't a romantic comedy - there are laughs, but there are just as many tears, bittersweet smiles and painful moments of empathy that anyone that has ever loved and lost... well, you know the moments and the feelings from personal experience.
This isn't 500 DAYS of full relationship, but it's 500 days from the moment he set eyes on her, to the moment she was no longer weighing on his soul, clouding his every thought. Hopefully - you've never been blessed/cursed like Tom here. Tom is a classic romantic. Someone that believes there's a ONE for him. I've always been the sort of sap that believed that the person I was with was THE ONE for me, until I didn't feel that way - and the second I felt that way, I have always broke it off. Because once you know that the person your with isn't the person for you, you should stop wasting both of your time. BUT what happens when you're hopelessly in love - and she realizes you're not the one. You're left, love sick, clawing at the hope of being taken back, not understanding what is wrong. You torture yourself, until something fills that void.
This is what 500 DAYS OF SUMMER is about, and it is absolutely fantastic. I know that sounds depressing and bitter - but Marc Webb and the screenwriters found a non-linear way of telling this story to where you never know what is going to happen - the cutting back and forth provides humor as well as the bittersweet reality that resonates so well with the audience. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the poor sap trapped in the obsession with Summer, played by Zooey Deschanel. And wow... Zooey is just stunning here. You can absolutely see why Levitt's Tom is smitten so. You can also see that her Summer is not as smitten as he.
There is one moment in this film where each and every man in the audience (and a goodly portion of the female audience) will cheer. It is a moment of ego projection that is so note perfect. So absolutely perfect, that the audience at the Paramount theater spontaneously erupted in cheers and applause. It was, that great - and is so great that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOU GEEKS (LIKE ME) will LOVE this movie for!
Fox Searchlight has a real winner on their hands here. This is a wonderful film.
In closing, I have to say this was the first SXSW in years where I had the opportunity to really devour film and that was a pleasure, especially when the selection was as great and varied as it was this year. I hope you get a chance to see films like BEST/WORST MOVIE, THE HORSEMAN, BLACK, THE SQUARE, WINNEBAGO MAN, THAT EVENING SUN and THE SLAMMIN' SALMON... All of which do not yet have distribution, but that a great deal of you would enjoy or love. These were my favorite films that don't have distribution. And I will tell you - when you get a chance to see OBSERVE & REPORT, DRAG ME TO HELL, ADVENTURELAND and 500 DAYS OF SUMMER - get in line immediately. They're exactly what you hope they are!