SXSW Film Reviews

From the festival front: reviews, panel reports, photos of famous people, and more

The following reviews are based on films whose final SXSW screenings predated publication. For more coverage timed to upcoming screenings (Film 07 runs through Saturday, March 17), see The Austin Chronicle daily editions on Thursday, March 15; Friday, March 16; and Saturday, March 17.
<i>Hell on Wheels</i> world premiere, Sunday, March 11
Hell on Wheels world premiere, Sunday, March 11 (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

In addition to the Film and Interactive panel coverage below, see austinchronicle.com for bloggings, comings, goings, movings, shakings, and a bunch of other awesome stuff.

SXSW Film Reviews

August the First

D: Lanre Olabisi; with Ian Alsup, Dennis Rubin Green, Joy Merriweather, Kerisse Hutchinson, Sean Phillips, A. Toni Sterret, Robert McKay

A broken home is nothing new, but under the direction of newcomer Olabisi, Tunde Ibirinde (Alsup) and his family of shattered expectations depict a superbroken home that can't sever its ties to the past. Tunde's Nigerian father, Dipo (Green), returns for his son's graduation celebration, but he might carry ulterior motives with him. More trusting than inspective, Tunde learns that nobody is who he seems. With an alcoholic mother (Merriweather), an overprotective older brother (Phillips), and an angry sister (Hutchinson), Tunde's party quickly turns disastrous. Shot in Olabisi's mother's house in New Jersey for less than $500,000, August the First is a story about the past and the future and how the two are forever entwined; it's about the strengths of family and the allure of naivete. – Darcie Stevens

SXSW Film Reviews

Companeras

D: Elizabeth Massie and Matthew Buzzell

Sometimes the key to making a great documentary is simply a belief in the possibility that a dramatic arc will fall, like manna, into your lap. Capturing the Friedmans was a brilliant example of this kind of serendipitous filmmaking, as was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Be at the right place at the right time, and you may just see your film rise from fact-finding mission into the rarefied air of human drama. Directors Massie and Buzzell had two fascinating stories built into their film about the world's first all-female mariachi band, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles: one about Cindy, a classically trained Caucasian violinist who leads the group despite being its only non-Latin member; and the other about Angelica, their biggest fan, who moves from Albuquerque to Los Angeles on the slim hope that she might one day join her heroes on stage. She chose instead to pay them only passing attention and settle for the more pedestrian trappings of the standard band documentary. – Josh Rosenblatt

SXSW Film Reviews

Doubletime

D: Stephanie Johnes

The tension in Doubletime – which follows two North Carolina double-dutch teams training to compete in a world-championship tournament – lies in deciding who to cheer for: the team offering a support network for inner-city youth? Or the Bouncing Bulldogs, a group of earnest suburban kids trying to prove themselves in an urban, African-American sport. The teams eventually compete against the world's best jumpers, including some high-fashion martial-arts-wielding Japanese kids, and the daunted look on the face of the Bouncing Bulldogs' tiniest 11-year-old phenom says it all. Doubletime echoes both Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom in format and irresistible cuteness. But what Doubletime has over those two is the visuals. There's nothing like watching hip-hop-infused double-dutch performed by athletes spinning through the air as ropes twirl around them, especially at New York's Apollo Theater, where the cheering, dancing audience adds as much energy to the film as those onstage do. – Nora Ankrum

SXSW Film Reviews

Fall From Grace

D: K. Ryan Jones

University of Kansas undergraduate Jones has made a compelling document investigating the hate-fueled rhetoric of Fred Phelps, the controversial, charismatic cult leader masquerading as a Baptist minister in Topeka, Kan. Even Fox News hates Phelps, who taxes the limits of the First Amendment with his message that "God Hates Fags" (and truly, to Phelps, said "fags" are emblematic of everything that's wrong with this country). Over the course of the film, he is revealed to be a small-minded, emotionally stunted rageaholic, one who brutally abused his children, beating them bloody with barber straps and axe handles. Now that his children are grown, Phelps directs his cruel impulses at America's fallen soldiers, picketing military funerals and tormenting young widows. Ultimately, Jones' documentary is a call for reconciliation, a plea to extend to Phelps the kind of love set forth by Christianity's ethos. One imagines that if we fail to do this, the titular fall from grace will be our own. – Melanie Haupt

SXSW Film Reviews

He Was a Quiet Man

D: Frank A. Cappello; with Christian Slater, Elisha Cuthbert, William H. Macy, Sascha Knopf, Jamison Jones

One of the oddest of Hollywood antiheroes is the angry, white, working male – lonely, shirt-sleeved misanthropes who take revenge on decadent society through acts of violence that they consider holy reckoning. Robert De Niro set the standard for these unstable souls in Taxi Driver, and Michael Douglas raised the bar to absurdist heights in Falling Down. Slater, unfortunately, is just not in their league, and he falls flat as Bob Maconel, an office drone who bemoans our social contract in voiceover while plotting the massacre of his co-workers from behind his cubicle walls. There is a refreshing plot twist in He Was a Quiet Man – one that elevates the painfully introverted Maconel to a hero – and a healthy dose of gallows humor, but Cappello's script is a scattershot affair with too much love for gimmicks, and his hero is too unsympathetic to win our understanding, much less our affection. – Josh Rosenblatt

SXSW Film Reviews

Kenny

D: Clayton Jacobson; with Shane Jacobson, Ronald Jacobson, Jesse Jacobson, Eve von Bibra

"There's a smell in here that will outlast religion." The Jacobson brothers' Australian mockumentary might be the highlight of this year's festival. Kenny (played so well by brother Shane that you're never quite sure it's fiction) works for (the real) Splashdown, Australia's premier portable-toilet company, and even through his thick accent and lisp (thank God for subtitles), Kenny's quips are so priceless, we're betting they become the Seinfeldians of the Aughties. And he's knowledgeable, too: Did you know where the word "shit" came from? Do you know the "piss-and-shit ratio" for a 4,000-person party serving curry? The highest-grossing feature in Australia (even beating out Superman Returns) deserves a hefty audience stateside with its prismatic depiction of the plumbing and sewage industry, the everyday man, and the ginormous Pumper & Cleaner Expo in Nashville, Tenn. You'll never love a lump as much as you'll love Kenny, and you'll laugh so hard you'll cry. We did. – Darcie Stevens

King Corn

D: Aaron Woolf

How often do you really think about where what you eat comes from? For most of us, the answer is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of "rarely." When childhood friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis plant an acre of corn in Iowa in the interest of learning how the grain enters the food chain, they come to the startling realization that they are, in effect, fueling the fast-food industry. The corn they grow has been genetically engineered not for direct consumption, but to be processed into high fructose corn syrup or fed to cows sent to confinement farms for "finishing" before heading to the slaughterhouse. Timed for release to coincide with Congress' consideration of the 2007 Farm Bill, King Corn is as relevant as Super Size Me and as important as An Inconvenient Truth in the recent rash of documentaries that challenge our perceptions of daily life in America. – Melanie Haupt

The King of Kong

D: Seth Gordon

Life magazine's picture of the great video gamers of the day (1982) includes the world-record holders of arcade classics. What was a claim to fame became, with age, a legacy – something to be defended. Billy Mitchell posed in 1982 with a T-shirt reading "Centipede 25,000,001." So began a life as the premier arcade gamer until the little engine that could, Steve Wiebe, entered the picture and threatened to steal his Donkey Kong crown. A modern underdog tale ensues, starring a family man (Wiebe) just trying to carve his own small niche in the record books and a mulleted man only Nietzsche could love (Mitchell). King of Kong is clearly slanted in favor of Wiebe, but Mitchell plays the douchebag too well to be anything but. When you have a pack of industry types audibly hissing at the bad guy and giving the underdog a standing ovation when he's revealed to be in the audience, you've done something right. – James Renovitch

The Price of Sugar

D: Bill Haney

A charismatic priest, hailing originally from an aristocratic Spanish family, discovers the ugly truth behind the Dominican Republic's sugarcane exports: Haitians eager to escape the squalor and desperation of their own country are transported across the border into a life of virtual enslavement – with living conditions even worse than what they've fled – in the sugarcane fields owned by a few wealthy, mafialike Dominican families. Determined, against all odds, to improve the living and working conditions of these Haitians, Father Hartley encounters not only the predictable resistance of the plantation owners but also, surprisingly, that of the Dominican public and media, who react with the nationalism of a country whose people have historically looked down upon the black Haitians once in control. The film is an even-handed and thorough probe of the inhumane conditions existing within an industry whose product this country imports with blind, if unwitting, abandon. Spoonful by spoonful. – Anne S. Lewis

SXSW Film Reviews

Twisted: A Balloonamentary

D: Naomi Greenfield and Sara Taksler

Balloons. A little latex wonder that, with a few twists and pinches, becomes that children's party fave, the balloon dog. However, as directors Greenfield and Taksler prove in their lighthearted debut feature, if you can make a balloon dog, you can make anything. Their broad-sweeping documentary is a beginner's primer to the world of balloon-twisting. It's not just about the variety of art (and this documentary leaves no illusion that this is an art; just wait for the 20-foot-tall Trojan horse or the life-sized geisha with a balloon parasol); it's about a culture and a community. People twist for a reason; there are twisting conventions, twisting superstars, religious twisters, porn twisters, married twisters, professional twisters, even "you may be a twister if" gags. Whatever reason the twisters give for their obsession – whether it's career, faith, or love – it's all summed up by one balloon artiste when he says, "Balloons make people smile." – Richard Whittaker

Running with Arnold

D: Dan Cox

President Arnie? Don't laugh. No one took Arnold Schwarzenegger the bodybuilder seriously when he said he wanted to be a movie star. Then no one took him seriously when he promised to jump from silver screen to state house. Running With Arnold is about Schwarzenegger's pumped-up chest – his $150 million electoral war chest – and what he plans to do with it. What's frightening is that director Cox doesn't dig up anything new on the Governator. He doesn't need to. What's already out there – the sexual-harassment claims, pandering to donors, and some very suspect links to Enron – is bad enough. With sonorous narration by Alec Baldwin, he puts together a patchwork of material that makes Arnie's election and re-election as California governor both terrifying and baffling. This Schwarzenegger is the new Reagan, a ruthless, callous, pro-corporate heart under a cloak of social liberalism and a bunch of one-liners. Constitutional barrier or no, if Arnie says he wants to be president, people should take him seriously. – Richard Whittaker

The Signal

D: David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, Dan Bush; with Anessa Ramsey, Sahr, AJ Bowen, Matt Stanton, Suehyla El-Attar, Justin Welborn, Cheri Christian

There is a moment in The Signal – a supremely entertaining shock/horror film – when a character who has both witnessed and taken part in multiple acts of outrageous violence says that "this is the most fucked-up day in the history of mankind." If the bizarre vision of the Apocalypse depicted in this film were to ever come to pass, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a more accurate description. You'd also want to consider arming yourself to the teeth and blowing up your TV. The film revolves around the premise that there is an evil signal coming from electronic devices. Nothing works: not phones, not radios, and not the television. Instead, the TV emits an eerie psychedelic image that controls the brain of anyone who watches it long enough. TV will rot your mind in the end, The Signal seems to tell us, and the result may well be more gruesome than anything any of us, Captain Kangaroo included, could have ever imagined. This film is brutal, gory, demented, sick, twisted, and a damn good time. It depicts a world gone totally wrong, of men and women reduced to an animalistic state in which bloodlust is all that matters, and survival of the fittest comes down to who can hit the other guy over the head with a hammer/baseball bat/metal canister of pesticide the hardest. It's funny, too, and the combination of great humor and extreme violence will tug at the heartstrings of many a red-blooded American. – John Razook

Silver Jew

D: Michael Tully

In the early Nineties, David Berman began releasing records (with then-co-worker Stephen Malkmus of Pavement fame) under the moniker Silver Jews and has done very well for himself in the underground indie-rock scene despite the decision to not tour or play live. In 1999, Berman released a book of poetry titled Actual Air, which went on to sell more than 20,000 copies. Although enjoying success as a poet, he discovers that sharing his artistry through the role as a musician communing directly with his audience to be much more personally fulfilling than the detached experience of writing poetry. Sober and with a newfound devotion to Judaism, David Berman and the Silver Jews embarked on their first-ever world tour in 2006, which included moving shows and experiences in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Filmmaker Tully follows them as they visit the local shops, dialogue with fans, and become overwhelmed by and embrace the deeply religious vibe of Israel and its community. – Mark Fagan

SXSW Film Reviews

Silver Jew

D: Michael Tully

In the early Nineties, David Berman began releasing records (with then-co-worker Stephen Malkmus of Pavement fame) under the moniker Silver Jews and has done very well for himself in the underground indie-rock scene despite the decision to not tour or play live. In 1999, Berman released a book of poetry titled Actual Air, which went on to sell more than 20,000 copies. Although enjoying success as a poet, he discovers that sharing his artistry through the role as a musician communing directly with his audience to be much more personally fulfilling than the detached experience of writing poetry. Sober and with a newfound devotion to Judaism, David Berman and the Silver Jews embarked on their first-ever world tour in 2006, which included moving shows and experiences in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Filmmaker Tully follows them as they visit the local shops, dialogue with fans, and become overwhelmed by and embrace the deeply religious vibe of Israel and its community. – Mark Fagan

Sisters

D: Douglas Buck; with Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Rea, Lou Doillon, Dallas Roberts

Oh, remakes. Why must you be so bad and often? Conjoined twins, an unscrupulous mad-scientist-type doctor; an obsessed, chain-smoking reporter; and a bloody murder by knitting needle make up the heart of Buck's retelling of Brian DePalma's 1973 classic. In his first feature-length film, Buck (who got horror props for 2004's collection of shorts, American Trilogy) veers from the Hitchcockian style of his predecessor and goes for a more Cronenberg-esque freak show, where much is made of his characters' emotional and physical scarring (Sevigny's character, the reporter, has been given her own sordid past, for instance, as well as a crying-in-the-bathtub jag to go along with it). Though the conceit of the remake is basically the same as the original, the film has been updated with cell phones, computer cams, and a completely rewritten ending that mixes gore, homoeroticism, and drugs and sets them in a creepy asylum where sad, masked children play games – well, really just hit one another with sticks – among the trees at night. – Diana Welch

Undead or Alive: A Zombedy

D: Glasgow Phillips; with James Denton, Chris Kattan, Navi Rawat, and Brian Posehn

One audience member pegged this film: Blazing Saddles meets Dawn of the Dead. In a festival full to the lurching brim with zombies, this Western take on the oeuvre is a standout. How can a film that opens with zombie Posehn biting the head off a chicken (the actor best known for TV's Just Shoot Me is a major metal music fan, thus the inside joke) not be a winner? Denton of Desperate Housewives fame is our antihero, Kattan is the goofy sidekick, and Rawat (who's actually an India Indian) is the Native American with an attitude. On their trail is a gang of zombie lawmen infected by Geronimo's White Man Curse. The result is a lasso full of laughs and plenty of brains for dinner. Writer/director Phillips admits readily that it's designed as the perfect midnight film. He's right. It is. I smell an undead DVD cult classic. – Joe O'Connell

Who Loves the Sun

D: Matt Bissonnette; with Lukas Haas, Molly Parker, Adam Scott, R.H. Thomson, Wendy Crewson

Inspired by Paul Auster's Leviathan, in which a man disappears indefinitely after walking in on a friend getting frisky with his wife, Bissonnette's (Looking for Leonard) second film explores what happens when that guy comes back. Set in a summer lake home full of well-to-do white people who act like they hate one another but still say please and thank you, the story of what happens when people harbor secrets unfolds quietly with the help of sarcasm, schoolyard brawls, and scotch. Each of the five performances is spot-on, but Haas is particularly endearing as the slightly off-kilter best friend come to settle a score, and Scott plays the spoiled, insecure bastard with disconcerting aplomb. With intelligent, realistic dialogue and fleshed-out characters, Bissonnette aptly captures a world where terse dinner conversation and early morning fishing trips replace true affection, while reminding us that families often pass down more consequential traits than just eye color. – Diana Welch

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READ MORE
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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards

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