SXSW Film Reviews
Short reviews from the festival's competition and non-competition lineup.
D: Nancy Kelly.
Documentary Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere
There are moments in Downside Up, a few, when it seems like art crit blather and solid American practical-mindedness are on a head-on collision course. In one, conceptual artist Natalie Jeremy Jenko lays out the theory behind her upside-down tree sculpture to a handful of polite townies from North Adams, Mass., where in the late 1980s various interests decided the way to revive the dying mill town was to retrofit its abandoned electronics factory as a contemporary art museum. In another, the North Adams mayor stands before a "Beanie Babies World Headquarters" sign on Main Street and explains that the new North Adams economy -- kicked off by the opening of the museum, MassMOCA, in 1996 -- will involve B&Bs and, he says later, "funny food" (something arugula-based, one imagines). But, in the end, what one finds in this careful, thoroughly realized document of a town's transition to post-industrial semi-glory is genuine engagement and a dialogue that transforms the artists, curators, and citizens as much as the town's economy. Veteran California filmmaker and North Adams native Nancy Kelly brings her homegrown sensibilities, along with friends and family, to the fray, and her personal aesthetic struggles help close perceived gaps between townies and art folk in this warm, open, visually arresting account of a civic project Massachusetts' Republican governor called "counterintuitive enough to work." (3/14, Hideout, noon) -- Cindy Widner
D: Ben Wolfinsohn.
Documentary Feature First Films, Regional Premiere
A VW van pulls up in front of your bar, donut shop, convenience store, or house. An ungodly racket comes out of the van, with one guy beating the bejesus out of a drum set, fog rolling out of the windows, strobe lights going off, and a bass player clambering in and out of the passenger side window, climbing on top of the van, jumping off, setting off firecrackers, and generally making a nuisance. Onlookers either stop and stare in stunned disbelief or keep walking, fast. That sums up the Friends Forever approach. The band is Josh and Nate, light manager Jenn, and three dogs, traversing the country, churning out musical mayhem and handily avoiding the issues of clubs, booking, money, or bathing. They're three brilliant imbeciles whose commitment to what they're doing is downright inspiring. Wolfinsohn traveled with the band for a month, mixing Super-8, VHS, and surveillance-cam media for this effort. (3/13, Hideout, 4pm; 3/15, ACC, 8:15pm) -- Jerry Renshaw
D: Tony Shalhoub, with Shalhoub, Brooke Adams, Lynne Adams, Eva Amurri, Gary Sinise.
Narrative Feature First Films, Regional Premiere
For all the weighty issues it tackles, or at least skirts -- the relative natures of beauty, power, art, authorship, familial loyalty, narrative, meta-narrative, and authenticity -- Made-Up is a lot of fun. Actor Tony Shalhoub's directorial film debut follows boomer mom Elizabeth (Brooke Adams) as she's filmed for a video production class by sister Kate (Lynne Adams), who is sometimes also filmed by her crew, and who nudges along a complicated aftermath when Elizabeth's daughter Sara does a makeover on her mother; various takes on the film's title play themselves out as Kate encourages Elizabeth's encounters with her ex-husband and his pretentiously amoral girlfriend, onscreen tooth-gnashing, and a budding, confusing romance. Heads can be set to spinning by the layers of meaning in almost every frame of this family project (Brooke and Lynne Adams are sisters; Brooke is married to Shalhoub), starting with the fact that the film is about a family project, but there's really no need. While Made-Up calls to mind (and in some cases directly references) reality television, Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, The Blair Witch Project, and even Paul Bartel's "The Secret Cinema" -- and occasionally suffers a parodic misfire or disingenuous plot twist -- it ultimately reads simply like the fine acting and writing showcase it is: a well-crafted, black romantic comedy, full of wit and life. (3/13, Arbor, 1:30pm; 3/16, Arbor, 5:15pm) -- Cindy Widner
Made-Up won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature First Film.
MARTIN AND ORLOFF
D: Lawrence Blume; with Ian Robers, Matt Walsh, Katie Roberts, Amy Poehler, David Cross.
Narrative Feature First Films, Regional Premiere
Haunted by guilt after a bizarre marketing-related fatality, junior exec Martin attempts suicide. After returning to work, he sees a psychologist (Orloff), who delivers a wholly unorthodox brand of therapy. Orloff acts like an overgrown adolescent and drags the stuffy Martin along on his adventures. Together, they run into several strange characters (some of whom are Orloff patients) and physical-comedy setups. The first two-thirds of the movie come across with some laughs and barrels along at a good clip, but things start to seem a little forced by the movie's last reel. Still, things are unpredictable enough to throw the audience a few curveballs. Drawing its cast from the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, the characters are what drive Martin and Orloff along, rather than the weiner and poo jokes that are shot throughout the script. Blume's direction is slick enough to make this film a good candidate for Comedy Central. (3/13, Arbor, 10pm; 3/16, Arbor, 10:30am) -- Jerry Renshaw
D: Allen Colombo; with Ali Farahnakian, Jennifer Joan Taylor.
Narrative Feature Competition, Regional Premiere
The title of this droll treat refers not only to Molière's comedy but to the film's humanity-hating hero, a schoolteacher and aspiring actor handicapped by his lack of talent, taste for the sauce, and contempt for, well, everyone. Actually, after we see him wake up drunk in an alley, hector his students, spy on a production of The Misanthrope he wasn't cast in, and do fishtails on his ex-girlfriend's lawn -- the guy comes off as more garden-variety asshole than misanthrope. But Farahnakian makes his boorishness funny -- watch him slurp water from a kitchen tap for days -- and he has a winning foil in Taylor's strait-laced but sunny vice-principal. Colombo's smart visual flourishes and some sharp kid acting add to the fun, so as this jerk travels the rocky road to redemption, directing his sixth-graders in, what else, The Misanthrope, you might catch yourself hoping he doesn't get three flats before he arrives. (3/13, Alamo, 4pm) -- Robert Faires
The Misanthrope won the Special Jury Award for Narrative Feature.
TOPA TOPA BLUFFS
D: Eric Simonson; with Robert Knepper, Martin McClendon, Maggie Welsh, Mickey Rooney.
Narrative Feature Competition, World Premiere
Two screenwriters decide that a backpacking trip would be just the thing to get the creative juices flowing again. While in the back country, one gets a killer screenplay idea -- literally. As the distrust grows, the two take turns trying to kill each other, and the plot takes many a snaky twist. Much has been made of Hollywood's dog-eat-dog ethics, and to its credit Topa Topa Bluffs offers a fresh take while delivering a broadside or two at SoCal's touchy-feely culture. It's a story that could easily have become goofy and inane, but the script stays as dead-on as a laser beam. Both principal characters are fairly rotten and unlikable, adding another layer of plausibility to the story. It's an in-joke for Hollywood (ã la The Player), but its basic theme of greed and treachery makes it accessible for everyone. Mickey Rooney even makes a deus-ex-machina appearance in this archly clever, pitch-black comedy. (3/14, Hideout, 10am)
-- Jerry Renshaw
D: Robert Cuffley; with Katherine Isabelle, Nicholas Campbell, Torri Higginson.
Paige is a gifted young writer trudging through adolescence in small-town, snow-buried Canada. She has her share of family woes -- a deadbeat brother, a widowed father, a scorned and rather loud ex-boyfriend -- and then she has her share of family secrets. What those are and the price of keeping them hidden is the subject of this debut feature film from Canadian Robert Cuffley. Nicely shot and acted, with an especially fine performance from its lead, Katherine Isabelle, Turning Paige withholds a great deal as it inches along, and as such, the film is slow and confounding at times, and the family secrets that bubble up in the film's climax may come as a bit of a disappointment. Instead, Turning Paige's real payoff is the way Cuffley shifts our perspective on each character, challenging our assumptions about each, especially the complicated and fluctuating teen girl at the film's center. (3/14, Arbor, 4pm) -- Sarah Hepola
WELCOME TO THE CLUB: THE WOMEN OF ROCKABILLY
D: Beth Harrington.
Documentary Feature Special Screenings, Regional Premiere
In the mid-Fifties, the search was on for Elvis' female counterpart, and women like Wanda Jackson, Janis Martin, and Lorrie Collins were all contenders for the role. Harrington's film takes a look at those women (along with Brenda Lee), chronicling the ups and downs of their lives and careers. Between the amazing archival footage and modern-day interviews, she puts rockabilly and its origins squarely in the social context of the times. The pioneering she-rockers broke new ground in the male-dominated world of rock, flaunting a playful sexuality and fierce musical style. Rockabilly's antecedents also are represented: wild Dallas hillbilly femme Charlene Arthur, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Mahalia Jackson and Ruth Brown (as well as latter-day heiresses apparent Marti Brom and Kim Lenz). In a time when Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly have turned into myth, this is an absorbing look at another side of Fifties rock. (3/13, Alamo, 2:15pm; 3/14, ACC, 8:30pm; 3/16, ACC, 6pm) -- Jerry Renshaw
Austin Convention Center Theatre
Friday, March 8, 8:45pm
After the audience finished watching Mai's America, which is about an outspoken exchange student from Hanoi named Mai who ends up living with a host family in rural Mississippi, someone asked the filmmaker, Marlo Poras, if she had shown the documentary to the host family. Mai came to America expecting outsized Hollywood glamour; what she got was a depressed family of self-proclaimed rednecks who, as Mai points out, seem interested in her only when she does strange things like put ketchup on her salad. At one point in the film, while talking to a transvestite named Christy she made instant friends with, Mai says that she doesn't like her host family. Now someone was asking Poras, who used to work for Martin Scorsese's production company before moving to Vietnam to produce AIDS education videos for Vietnamese teenagers, what she was going to do about the unflattering, if accurate, portrayal. "I just finished it 15 days ago," Poras said, and everyone laughed, as if they, too, had just finished making their first notably accomplished documentary 15 days ago. -- Clay Smith
Mai's America won the Audience Award for Documentary Feature.