SXSW: Sylvio

Sylvio works for a collection agency call centre and makes films with puppets and miniature props in his spare time. He’s a pretty lonely guy, at least partially because he’s a gorilla who doesn’t speak human. He hides his pain behind cool sunglasses.

But then Sylvio finds his niche: he’s always been unintentionally great at breaking things, and now he’s found a platform that appreciates this special talent of his – local television.

This film may be about an ape but there’s a lot of humanity to it. Sylvio is the most literal of outsiders, and he just wants to belong, to be himself, to be accepted, to do what he’s best at. It’s tinged with sadness because Sylvio soon finds that success and commercialization aren’t the same as acceptance.

According to IMDB, Sylvio is played by Sylvio himself. Apparently Sylvio’s had a very popular act on Vine for years, and this film is due to people’s demand for more. Written by Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney, and Meghan Doherty (and directed by the former two), Sylvio is surprisingly soulful for an ape who doesn’t speak. I know it sounds a little wonky and I wasn’t sure myself if this was worth the time, but Audley and Birney have found a way to take 6-second meditations and actually make something of them. Sylvio turns out to be a thoughtful, well-realized film. It feels strange even saying that because Sylvio’s silence makes him pretty inscrutable. Am I projecting? Anthropomorphizing? Or is Sylvio truly a critique of the internet culture, the same one that gave birth to its origins?

The one thing it isn’t is pointless. This is what independent cinema is for, and SXSW is the perfect venue for it. It’s playing today, March 15th, at Alamo Lamar.

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SXSW: Pornocracy

In 2006-2008, the porn industry suffered a great crash; as the economy tanked, internet piracy soared. The DVD market for porn virtually disappeared and the traditional porn studios became obsolete. Porn consumption, however, has never been higher – 100 BILLION porn videos are viewed every year, 90-95%  from free streaming sites. This has meant very bad things for the women making porn – less money (like, 10 times less), and less safety.

Director Ovidie was herself  the star of pornographic films for 17 years. Today her videos are being streamed for free without her consent, meaning they are much more easily accessed by everyone and anyone – including colleagues and relatives. Porn stars like Ovidie don’t really exist anymore. You may remember a time not so long ago when porn stars were worshiped. Today a woman’s name is rarely attached to her videos. Instead, she’s reduced to a series of tags and keywords, usually related to how many cocks are stuffed into her various holes – and yes, that number is going up and up.

Ovidie’s film Pornocracy explores the consequences of this:

  1. If everything is available for free, who is making any money?
  2. When everything is so easily accessible on the internet, children are seeing it from younger and younger ages (the average is 11). This is actually changing what boys expect from girls when they’re dating and starting to have sex.
  3. The porn industry’s reliance on drugs is rampant. Guys inject their penises to stay hard for 5 hours straight. Women are given child birth drugs to dilate muscles so their assholes can accommodate the 3 cocks expected of them. Then they’re flooded with lidocaine so she can’t feel herself being torn to shreds by the act – she will later though, and she will never completely heal.

This is not appetizing food for thought, but this is the world we live in, regardless of whether you yourself are watching porn or not. Everyone else is, apparently. Ovidie, known as the “porn star intellectual,” manages to investigate this phenomenon very thoroughly, uncovering the kingpin behind all these seemingly independent streaming sites. They’re nearly all owned by the same multinational corporation which is so seedy and shadowy with offshore accounts and empty offices. Fabian Thylmann is the guy behind the monopoly, exploiting performers while also boldly, shamelessly stealing from them. Ovidie makes sure he doesn’t get to hide behind his anonymity. This is an important, revealing documentary about the porn industry – but also about how it affects us all.

 

SXSW: The Ballad of Lefty Brown

the-ballad-of-lefty-brown-F71455The Ballad of Lefty Brown starts from an interesting place. Writer/director Jared Moshe was curious about the bumbling sidekick in John Wayne movies, the guy who functioned as comic relief. That archetypal character could not do anything right, so why did someone like John Wayne choose to have a bumbling guy like that as the one watching his back?

Lefty Brown is one such bumbler. Played by Bill Pullman, we join Lefty late in life, near the end of a lifetime of sidekicking for a Montana rancher who has just been elected to the U.S. Senate.  Lefty would be at a loss anyway due to his mainkick, but things are made much, much worse when the rancher is ambushed and murdered by a cattle rustler that he and Lefty were tracking.

Pullman is very believable as Lefty, a sad-sack who believes he contributed to, or at least could have done something to prevent, the death of his idol and only friend. Other characters, including many familiar faces, come and go but serve mainly to advance the story. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know them as much as I would have liked, but this is Lefty’s story for once so it would be cruel to complain that he got too much screen time!

The landscape is beautifully shot, and the cinematography really emphasizes Lefty’s isolation. He’s literally in the middle of nowhere for most of this movie, and even when he’s accompanied by others that feeling of isolation remains.

Because of the rancher’s death, Lefty has to assume the leadership role, and as we spend time with Lefty we get to learn why the rancher was willing to place so much trust in Lefty. It’s an enjoyable journey even though, paradoxically, the movie plays out like a typical western because the rancher’s death makes Lefty the lead with a sidekick of his own. But I like to think that the rancher knew all along what our stand-in hero Lefty was truly made of.

If, like me, you’re intrigued by the concept and are in Austin TX this week then you have one more chance to see The Ballad of Lefty Brown at SXSW, on March 15 at 2 p.m.

 

 

 

SXSW: Unrest

Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), commonly referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It’s a debilitating chronic disease as often misunderstood as it is misdiagnosed. People like to call it “the lazy disease” or “the I don’t want to go to work” disease. Doctors often diagnose a mental disorder rather than the autoimmune disease it actually is, telling patients “it’s all in their heads.” But to the 1-2.4 million people who suffer with it in the United States alone, it’s a disease that leaves you drained, sensitive to light and noise and possibly much else, perhaps unable to stand and walk. Permanently housebound and bedridden, they feel they’ve gone missing from their lives – it passes them by while they lie in bed, sometimes with cognitive impairments that make them feel like they’re not truly living.

Director Jennifer Brea is one such person. She was a happy newlywed when suddenly she just got hit with a disease she didn’t even know about. Robbed of the things she once loved doing, this film documents her daily struggles, the constant tug of war that must be waged against her body. She also reaches out to people around the world suffering the same thing, and together they try every supposed miracle cure on the market. When none work exactly as they hope, they stage a protest most are unable to attend. It’s really sad to see such vibrant people struck down by such sweeping disability. It is no wonder that despite serious medical symptoms, one of the most common causes of death for ME sufferers is suicide.

I am moved personally by this film because as you may know, I too have an autoimmune disorder. There are tonnes of autoimmune disorders and all but a handful are practically unknown, even to doctors. I admit to a small bit of jealousy when Brea complains about ME being the least-funded of the major diseases because my disease doesn’t even rate – we call it an “orphan disease”  – nobody’s even trying to cure it. There is no funding. There is no ribbon. There is no textbook. I’ve visited approximately 100 doctors and I’ve had to educate all but 2. The lives this disease ruins are too few for anyone to care. So in that way I understand perfectly what she’s going through; you have a terrible disease and you have no hope of cure. You have no hope, period. And on top of having no hope for yourself, you also have this huge burden of guilt because like her, I’ve dragged someone else into the equation. And while Sean is not sick, his life is also disabled by my disease. If I’m too riddled with pain to leave the house, he stays home with me. He cares with me. He deals with my terrible moods when I’m in pain, and my pushing him away when I’m in despair. He has brought me around the world to different doctors, and he feels the same low when I leave another appointment hopeless. In order to live our lives, I push myself out of bed and out of the house too often, and we both know I’ll pay the price. I’ve cried in anguish in Paris, outside the Centre Pompidou. I’ve bled across the Miami boardwalk. Even right now, in Austin, Texas for the South By SouthWest Conference and Festival, my suitcase is bursting with pills, gauze, and needles (that Sean has had to learn to inject me with) just to get me through, and I’ve limped along in secret pain, unable to even bring one of my most depended-upon medications with me because it’s illegal in this country.

So you’ll understand why I think a film like Unrest is so important. It sheds light in a dark corner of the medical community. It’s important to remember the real people who live their lives in this dark corner. They have voices. They have families who love them. They have friends who miss them. And if we cannot contribute to the cure, we can become allies. We can be witnesses and sympathizers and believers, so that nobody needs to hear from a doctor that “it’s all in your head.”

It’s screening at SXSW March 14 at the Vimeo Theatre and March 16 at Alamo Lamar, which serves great pretzels.

SXSW: Ramblin’ Freak

Although ostensibly about a specific bodybuilder’s incredible true story, Ramblin’ Freak is also about the randomness of life. Parker Smith wants to make a film but he’s not sure of what. He buys a used camera off Ebay thinking maybe he’ll set it up on his dashboard as he drives cross country, but the camera has a different idea. Lightly used, it comes pre-loaded with an old tape of some bodybuilder, and it turns out that body builder is “the man whose arms exploded” so Smith naturally feels that the universe has told him to document this man’s story, and off he goes.

Ramblin’ Freak captures the aimlessness of youth. Smith, 24 years old, seems untethered, his plan for the documentary really no plan at all, and the finished film turns ramblin-freak-F71268out to be largely unstructured: 50 minutes into the film we still haven’t seen any exploding arms, but we’ve seen plenty of Smith’s unironic mini van, his cat, and his Hipster facial hair. The film is dotted with seemingly random Youtube videos that slowly reveal the personal tragedy behind some of Smith’s listlessness.

Smith’s camera work leaves a lot to be desired. Don’t set your heart on perfectly composed shots. Don’t be surprised when the camera accidentally tilts up and you experience a scene via a shot of the ceiling, that may or may not have sound. And the story telling isn’t much better; unraveling Smith’s intentions feels like an opaque job that we’re not fairly equipped for. But as we made our way through hapless encounters, I began to feel that this disjointed film making was an accurate, authentic reflection on the film maker’s state of mind. If Smith lacks the vocabulary to express his pain, he’s letting his documentary do the talking for him, and it’s a mess.

All told, this is not the story of a body builder with exploding arms, or even about the journey towards that end. It’s really about a young man’s pain, his tentative exploration of it, his bravery and willingness to show it for what it is. Grief is never any one thing, and perhaps coping looks and feels different to this new Millennial generation. Parker Smith engages in this extended, 90-minute selfie and shows us a new kind of navel-gazing as he picks the scabs of his wounds and tries to heal himself.

Ramblin’ Freak screens at SXSW:

March 13: Alamo Ritz

March 16 & 18: Alamo Lamar

 

 

 

 

 

SXSW: Walk With Me

Walk With Me is a documentary that peers behind the mysterious curtain of a mindfulness-practicing monastery in rural France. The denizens of the Plum Village monastery have left behind their possessions and their pretensions to practice the spiritual art of living in the moment. Shot over 3 years with unprecedented access, Walk With Me allows us to get that much closer to a subject often shrouded in secrecy.

It strikes me quite quickly that the documentary itself is an exercise in meditation; it lulls carousel-06.jpgus with deliberately soothing music and excellently edited nature sounds. The film makes participants of us, the pace a thing of beauty, very measured, very calm, each image carefully and mindfully chosen. And it doesn’t hurt one ounce that Benedict Cumberbatch narrates.

Walk With Me boasts of time spent with “The Father of Mindfulness” Thich Nhat Hanh, but what I liked best was the insight gleaned from every day people, people who I could relate to, who had left behind everything familiar and everything material for the pursuit of peace and quiet.

I would guess that directors Marc Francis and Max Pugh were themselves transformed by the making of this movie. They’ve delved deeper than we’ve seen before, and achieved a certain intimacy that is rare in a documentary. Told in a fragmentary, rather than narrative, way, the documentary inspires a sense of being and understanding that allows us to explore this unknown by direct observation. The camera never feels intrusive though; there’s a respectful distance and some breathing room that infuses the project with a spiritual vibe.

The images encountered in Walk With Me are unquestionably beautiful. The stories carousel-05captured, the snippets of life, the tranquility: these all guide us down a path of – and forgive the use of this word – enlightenment.

You can catch Walk With Me at the SXSW Conference & Festival:

March 12 & 13 Zach Theatre

March 15 Alamo Lamar

Eight monastics from the film will be leading daily events at SXSW, including walking meditations and Q&As.

 

 

SXSW: Catherine (Short)

This short animated film requires a huge suspension of disbelief: that cats are anything but awful, awful creatures. That said, if you can stomach the premise, you might find Catherine to be quite endearing.

Catherine is a little girl well on her way to becoming a crazy cat lady. It would seem the only prerequisite to being a crazy cat lady is accidentally killing everything else (or driving CATH_A3_poster_v006them to suicide) and that seems about right to me. Even though Catherine’s a bit of a hazard, you can’t help but root for her, root for her happiness. I am completely drawn in by the animation by Creative Conspiracy studios – it looks very picture-book friendly, yet the humour within is surprisingly dark. The colours are like candy and used thoughtfully throughout. I always admire short films because to tell a story well they must be economical and equally strong visually and narratively. Catherine (the film) is all of these things wrapped up in a cutesy little package. Catherine (the character) is not so perfect, nor, it turns out, so cute: Catherine grows up. Into a woman who means well but can’t connect with humans. Wonder why? See the film!

Director Britt Raes was of course inspired by her own kitty, Kato. She’s assembled a terrific little film that you can’t help but be excited about. Special mention goes to Pieter Van Dessel (Marble Sounds) who composed this nifty little score that uplifts and contributes to the story. It’s a very admirable little film that I hope you’ll take the time to see as it makes its North American debut at the South By SouthWest Conference and Festival this Sunday March 12 at Zach Theatre (10:45am slot), and again on the 13th at 8:15pm, and on March 16 at 3pm at Alamo Lamar. Happy watching, cat lovers!

 

 

SXSW: Small Town Crime

small-town-crime-F68309No matter how hard you try, you can’t see everything at a festival like SXSW. To prepare for these big festivals, we study the schedule like our lives depend on it, read the synopses repeatedly, and try to see as many of our favourite artists as possible.  All that prep work helps a lot, but sometimes a tight schedule makes a choice for us. That happened today with Small Town Crime and we were better off for it. Put simply, Small Town Crime is an indie gem that is one of the best films I’ve seen in 2017.

Featuring too many compelling, well-written characters to count, and matched by great performances from pros like John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, and Robert Forster, Small Town Crime sparkles.  We are introduced right away to Hawkes’ suitably pathetic, yet undeniably charming, alcoholic ex-cop. He’s got a few skeletons too many in his closet, so he needs some breakfast beers in order to get underway each afternoon. But he is determined not to let that disease keep him from solving a mystery that falls right into his lap.

ian-nelms-F68309Functioning both as a whodunnit and an offbeat action-comedy, Small Town Crime is consistently good, especially when Hawkes’ character shares the screen with Forster’s concerned grandfather and Clifton Collins Jr.’s refreshingly self-aware pimp.  Writer-directors Eshom and Ian Nelms clearly recognized what they had and give those three characters a hefty share of screen time. That must have been particularly difficult here since the cast is extremely deep. Even with the focus on that trio, I was left wanting to see more of them. I’d be first in line for a sequel (or a television series) showcasing more of their adventures.

In addition to its fantastic characters, Small Town Crime also delivers great action scenes and showcases a wide array of memorable vehicles (the Nelms brothers are self-professed car nuts). Small Town Crime is a fantastic film that shoots right to the top of the list of must-see indie movies. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

If you’re at SXSW, you still have two more chances to see Small Town Crime on March 12 and 17, and otherwise, you should cross your fingers for this film to get a well-deserved wide release.

SXSW: Alien & Alien: Covenant Sneak Peek

alien-F71972Anytime you get a chance to watch Alien with Sir Ridley Scott, you take it. How great is it that we got that chance?  Even better, Scott was not alone. He brought Alien: Covenant footage with him, as well as Covenant stars Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, and Michael Fassbender. An entertaining Q&A took place after the bulk of the new footage. We didn’t learn any big secrets but it’s obvious that all three actors were thrilled to have had the chance to work with Scott, particularly McBride who joked that his parents were thrilled he was finally making a real movie.

ridley-scott-F71972The new footage proves that Scott is not afraid to rip himself off, and that’s great news as far as I’m concerned. You would expect Alien: Covenant to bear at least a passing resemblance to Alien (as the former’s purpose, aside from making tons of money, is to bridge the gap between Prometheus and the original quadrilogy. But the similarities are greater than that, they’re intentional callbacks to the original.  That made the footage from Covenant FEEL like Alien, as it took us to the same places that Alien did, only now we know what’s going to happen (and what has to happen). Scott delivers on his setups with glee, letting us know he’s right there with us. A facehugger scene featuring Billy Crudup was especially awesome. It’s a good bet there will be more moments like that in the footage still to come.

If the rest of the movie measures up to the three full scenes we were treated to then Alien: Covenant is going to be a must-see for anyone who is a fan of the original. And I’m guessing you’re a fan if you are reading this. This one could be great. I’m now super excited to see it when it opens May 19th. And if Scott is available for another screening then, all the better. Fingers crossed!

There’s much more to come from SXSW. Check out @assholemovies for more movies and photos as things happen!

SXSW: Let There Be Light

In the race to find alternative energy sources and ultimately save ourselves from certain extinction, nuclear fusion is often left out of the narrative. Let There Be Light is an engaging reminder that fusion research is in fact bursting with potential, even if it is hidden away in the southern French countryside.

This documentary introduces us to a group of scientists who are working together to create Earth’s first artificial star, a star to provide perpetual, cheap, clean energy. It’s an internationally-funded, decades-long project that requires a lot of faith and some tireless screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-11-14-24-am.pngenergy from its proponents. Directors Mila Aung-Thwin and Van Royko interview some very charismatic and enthusiastic supporter and collaborators of the project, called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). It’s pretty much the most complex machine ever designed and the commitment of these people cannot be overstated.

But as compelling as it is to see some scientists geeking out over this project that’s so mentally exciting and emotionally dear to them, Let There Be Light also shows the shadows. There are almost limitless hurdles. Some of this is brand new science or technology being invented on the spot as needed. The sheer scope is overwhelming. Countries and their taxpayers have to be constantly courted and updated, and scientists have to go begging for money just to keep this thing going. If it works? It could solve the global energy crisis. But if it fails it will be one of the biggest scientific and political blunders of all time. No pressure!

The directors put together some very dynamic interviews, great archival footage, and perhaps my favourite, some great animation with a gorgeous colour palette to bridge the gaps. It’s a lean documentary that stays interesting start to finish.

Let There Be Light has a premiere screening at SXSW this Friday March 10, 9pm at the Alamo Ritz. It will have additional screenings March 12 & 15 at Alamo Lamar. Check it out!