Tag Archives: SXSW

SXSW: M.F.A.

MFA-movieShortly after we are introduced to Master of Fine Arts candidate Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), she is raped by a classmate.  When she confronts him the next day, he denies doing anything wrong and winds up dead in a mostly-accidental way.  Somewhere during the events that caused Noelle to be a victim of sexual assault and a murder suspect, she snaps.  Formerly introverted and a loner, Noelle starts going to frat parties in order to seduce and murder other rapists who, due to a faulty system, got away with their crimes.

It will not be surprising to anyone who has seen the excellent documentary The Hunting Ground (or really, anyone who has attended a post-secondary institution) that despite her school having reported no sexual assaults at all, it is all to easy for Noelle to find rapists to kill on her college’s campus as she goes full vigilante.   In carrying out a series of increasingly violent kills, Noelle has no real fear of being caught even though she knows the police are closing in.

Eastwood is INTENSE in M.F.A.  Like, maybe more intense than her father has ever been, and that’s saying something because that guy’s face is frozen in a permanent, angry, “Ima kill you” sneer.  She is the best part of this movie and while she can’t make Noelle relatable, she keeps the audience on her side throughout the film, and that is no small feat in the face of her bloody killing spree.

M.F.A. offers an interesting twist on the typical slasher flick, and Noelle’s numerous kills are well-executed and, as is traditional in the genre, get more gory as she goes.  If nothing else, M.F.A. calls attention to the conversation we all should be having, namely why so many women are being sexually assaulted on college campuses and why the colleges are in many cases turning a blind eye to the rapes, or even discouraging victims from reporting these assaults!

The scary part about M.F.A. is not Noelle, it’s that the rapists and the evil administrator who blames the victim and covers up assaults are all too real, and are on your campus, or your friend’s, or your daughter’s.  We need to find an alternative solution, other than murder, so that a campus rape stops being a standard part of a Saturday night frat party, and so that when a college claims to have had zero rapes it’s not because the administration successfully intimidated and discouraged all potential complainants.  No more sexual assaults should be swept under the rug.  M.F.A. helps to shine a light on the problem.

 

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SXSW: A Critically Endangered Species

a-critically-endangered-species-F64922.jpgOnce in a while I wish I had a more literary mind.  When I write, it’s pretty direct and while I used to attempt subtext I’ve pretty much given up on it at this point – too much effort for too little payoff.  But that’s for my writing, where no marks are given for artistry.  All that matters is the end result.

Whereas for Maya (Lena Olin), the protagonist in A Critically Endangered Species, artistry is all that matters.  She’s a very successful writer, possibly too successful in that she has decided her best work is behind her and she will kill herself rather than crank out any more mediocre books.  Her last project is to select a young male writer to inherit everything and safeguard her work after her death.

She holds tryouts that inevitably include detailed examinations of the applicants’ work, and with one notable exception end in sex.  The field is quickly narrowed to two finalists, a showdown between intellectual and sexual appeal.  For Maya’s part, she takes pleasure in sex but she obviously does not get pleasure or happiness from anything else, and sees no value in her life aside from her work.  The beautiful but muted shots of northern California are a good match for Maya’s melancholy state of being.

Which candidate wins is incidental.  The process is what matters.  Just as incidental is the fact of Maya’s imminent suicide.  Refreshingly, this is not a moral examination of Maya’s choice.  The focus of the movie is the competition between two very different suitors and the discussions between them about some very interesting writing.  The movie is extremely well-written and writers Zachary Cotler and Magdelena Zyzak deserve particular praise for producing so many stylistically different pieces of poetry for the applicants to read and defend against Maya’s criticism.  The acting is spot-on as well, giving us main characters that are both well-written and well-executed.

A Critically Endangered Species is heavily intellectual and took less than five minutes to go over my head as far as literary analysis goes.  Even so, it was extremely interesting to take in the poetry and the discussions that followed each piece.  This is a different sort of movie than I’m used to, and while I would have found the difference refreshing on its own, the quiet excellence of this film is what really made a lasting impression.   Added to that, if you have more than a passing interest in literature (which for me basically starts and ends with comic books), then A Critically Endangered Species is not only a good movie, it’s an intricate discussion piece that should rub you in a few different ways at once.  Which may be what Maya was searching for all along.

 

SXSW: Mayhem

mayhem-F71173.jpgI’m not sure if it was because Mayhem stars Steven Yeun (Glenn from the Walking Dead), or because of the bass-heavy soundtrack and quick cuts that almost have a sound to them, or because the theatre showed a George Romero anti-texting ad just before the movie started.  One way or another, Mayhem almost immediately reminded me of the Resident Evil franchise.  That’s probably NOT the franchise that director Joe Lynch was hoping to emulate, and may be taken as an insult, but I don’t mean it as one.  It’s a great match for the movie’s frenetic, claustrophobic, satirical look at an office building full of potential murderers and murder victims.

Let me explain.  In Mayhem’s universe, there is an airborne disease that removes people’s inhibitions, and if you’re infected then your eye turns red.  From that short synopsis I hope it’s clear that if you are at all eye-phobic (like Jay is) then you should stay far, far away from this one.  There is a lot of eye-rubbing going on in this office building and surprisingly, people are not freaked out with it, given that everyone in the building clearly knows all about this disease.  But they are not troubled enough to leave the building before it gets quarantined and some actually have plans to use the disease for their benefit, as a “legal loophole” of sorts.  FOR MURDER!

[lawyer rant] As a lawyer, I have to point out the precedent the schemers intend to rely on isn’t actually a loophole but rather an obviously wrong decision that would be overturned on appeal and/or disregarded in future cases.   And since the office building in which the movie takes place is a law firm, they really should know better because this lawyer knows that those relying on the “loophole” are all going to prison for a long, long time.  [/lawyer rant]

There’s plenty of blood and gore galore in Mayhem but the slick, tongue-in-cheek presentation makes the gore palatable and entertaining, to the point you will wonder whether you’ve finally been 100% desensitized to violence.  I mean, it’s almost certain I was desensitized long ago but I’m telling myself my tolerance for Mayhem’s gore was a result of not being invested in the characters.  Even Yeun’s character wasn’t compelling to me because he was kind of a sleazeball.  But then again he was a movie lawyer, so that’s to be expected.

I’m a little miffed that all movie lawyers are sleazeballs.  Mainly because you never see movie doctors being dishonest.  At worst they are addicts but they get to be honest addicts so they’re still one up on movie lawyers.  Maybe it’s finally time for me to write that screenplay about the dishonest doctor who was tricking his patients but then gets caught by the handsome honest lawyer and just when you think the doctor is going to use a loophole to get away with it, the lawyer totally shuts him down, he really makes the doctor look like an idiot for even trying, and in winning the case he also wins the love of his beautiful co-counsel and everyone lives happily ever after (other than the evil doctor who gets exactly what he deserves).  It’s going to have something for everyone, except for doctors who don’t deserve anything as I think we’ve already established.

By the way, Mayhem is a generic but entertaining thriller that looks far more polished than it has any right to on an indie budget.  If you can relate to an office revenge tale, or just hate lawyers, then keep an eye out for this one.

 

 

 

Why Him?

Ned is a sweet, hard-working family man who loves to bowl. His wife, Barb, is a supportive and involved mother of two, an art professor and photographer on the side. They have a 15 year old son who makes loving slide shows and a daughter at college who is dearly missed. Imagine their surprise when a Face Time with her reveals the unadorned ass of her secret lover.

Rendywhy-him-01-trlr-9204Cut to: Ned (Bryan Cranston) and Barb (Megan Mullally) fly to California to meet their daughter’s new boyfriend, Laird (James Franco). He’s a “free spirit” which is code for guy who makes worst possible impression on parents so they immediately hate him, which is unfortunate because he’s terribly in love with their daughter. It’s always awkward when someone tries too hard to be liked. It’s a thousand times more awkward when that someone is a tech millionaire who has unlimited means to make all his awkward dreams come true.

I was pretty sure I could write this review without even seeing the movie, and I was half right: this movie has very little to add to the overprotective dad vs odd duck fiance trope. We get it, dads: you hate your daughter’s boyfriends. But I have to admit that a charming cast goes a long way with this movie. Franco continues to endear himself to me. Cranston makes the implausible feel plausible. And Mullally has space to shine. The truth is, this dumb movie did make me laugh.

If you’ve seen Why Him? then you know that Bryan Cranston plays a not-very-hip dad who doesn’t relate to new technology in any meaningful way, which has already alienated him from his kids, but opens a wide chasm between himself and his daughter’s Silicon Valley boyfriend. Laird’s mansion is “paperless” and Ned learns the hard way that WhyHim_.0this includes toilet paper. Laird has the latest in toilet innovation but since its instruction manual has not yet been translated from Japanese, his weird assistant (Keegan-Michael Key) gets to show Ned live and in person how to properly “wipe” his ass. In order to celebrate the release of this movie, Why Him? brought a suitably fancy porta potty to SXSW. This, ladies and gentlemen, is officially the weirdest way I’ve ever seen a movie promoted and it worked. How could I not find out what’s up with that? I did, however, resist the temptation to stick my arm through a hole that would apparently provide me with a James-Franco-inspired temporary tattoo.

SXSW: Muppet Guys Talking

Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind The Show The Whole World Watched is a documentary directed by Frank Oz. It features several of the “original” muppet puppeteers\voices – Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Bill Berretta, Jerry Nelson (now deceased), and Oz himself. It’s a very loving but simple film, just friends and colleagues having a chat over coffee. They discuss the characters they helped create and bring to life, the shows that made them famous, and the man behind it all: Jim Henson.

The documentary runs just over an hour but is packed full of priceless recollections. These people are still brimming with admiration for Jim Henson all these years later, and it’s clear that his legend lives on. Muppet Guys Talking is a testament to the power of creativity, and the importance of having the freedom to truly embrace it. It’s also just a lovely tribute to the characters we all grew up loving, and a reminder that the hidden humans behind those characters are not just providing a voice, but have also got their hands up their asses.

dave-gonzoDave Goelz is perhaps best known for puppeteering\voicing Gonzo. He also does Bunsen Honeydew and Zoot from The Muppet Show, Boober Fraggle and Uncle Travelling Matt from Fraggle Rock, and the puppetry for  Sir Didymus in Labyrinth, and dozens more.

 

Fran Brill was an actor before she turned to puppeteering, but Jim Henson knew she FranBrill-ZoePrairiehad good instincts and recruited her for his workshop. It paid off: she won an Emmy for her work on
Sesame Street, where she has originated many characters, including (but not limited to!) Zoe, Little Bird, Betty Lou, and Prarie Dawn.

 

D23 EXPO 2015, The Magic Behind the MuppetsBill Barretta got his start puppeteering on Dinosaurs, and later developed characters for Muppets Tonight including Pepe the King Praw, Johnny Fiama, and Bobo the Bear. He also took over some of Jim Henson’s characters after his death, including Dr. Teeth, Rowlf, Mahna Mahna, and Swedish Chef.

 

Jerry Nelson’s most-loved character may be Sesame Street’s Count Von Count, though he was jerry-nelson---voice-of-count-von-count-on-sesame-street-55b75bda60f9fffaalso the original puppeteer for Snuffleupagus.  On The Muppet Show he did Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Dr. Julius Strangepork (from Pigs in Space), Kermit’s nephew Robin the Frog, and Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla the Chicken, among many, many others, and he often did the show’s announcing as well. On Fraggle Rock he did the lead character, Gobo Fraggle, Pa Gorg, and Marjory the Trash Heap.

sesame_street_jim_henson_frank_ozFrank Oz is of course the man behind Miss Piggy, plus Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Sam Eagle from The Muppet Show, and Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover from Sesame Street, and even did the puppeteering and voice work for a minor character in Star Wars – Yoda. Besides this documentary, he’s the director of films such as Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob, In & Out, and Death at a Funeral.

Each of them reminisce about the inspiration behind the characters, how they helped shape them, how they evolved over time, the crazy contortions they pulled hiding behind their more recognizable but felt-based counterparts. It was a very cool documentary, and lucky us, we also got to sit in on a Q&A session with the performers (moderated by Robert Rodriguez!), so look for some of that in the comments section!

 

SXSW: Prevenge

Alice Lowe has stumbled upon a new kind of body horror: that of a heavily pregnant woman. Ruth is on a murder spree, guided by the wee voice in her womb who just happens to be a misanthropic areshole. The little voice chimes in, pointing out the bad people, or the disappointing people, or the less than desirable people, and encouraging mom to kill, kill, kill. Apparently there’s blood lust in umbilical cords these days!

Alice Lowe is my hero. She wrote (and starred in) Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, appeared in Adult MV5BN2EzNTdlOGEtNWViZC00MmE5LWFiNzgtOTIzODNlMjBjM2M2L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1399,1000_AL_Life Skills and Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, and lent her voice to Locke, among a flurry of other activity, including fucking. That’s crude, but the end result is that she found herself pregnant, and instead of taking maternity leave like a sane person, she wrote and directed herself, at 7.5 months pregnant, in this film about a homicidal fetus. And it’s her first feature as director!

Ryan Reynolds became murderous when his cat Mr. Whiskers told him to, but Alice Lowe has done him one better. Prevenge is blackly comic and wryly British, if I may say so. Ruth’s unborn baby seems to be holding the world accountable for her absent father, slyly suggesting to her mother that certain someones might be deserving of a gory end. Ruth seems to indulge baby’s every whim but does struggle with her conscience. Is this a new kind of pre-partum, um, madness? And what the heck is going to happen when the baby comes out? Yikes!

Shudder, “Home of Horror” hosted a screening in NYC where all pregnant women were admitted free. I suppose those who weren’t superstitious attended, and hopefully saw the humour in a pregnant lady killing for two. If that’s something you might be into, the good word is that Prevenge is streaming on Shudder right this very minute. 

 

 

 

 

 

SXSW: Dara Ju

Seyi has a good life: he’s handsome, Harvard-educated, has a great job on Wall Street, and a budding new relationship. You might assume that this Nigerian immigrant is living the American Dream, but things are actually much more complicated than that. His family places heavy demands on his time, his money, his emotional well-being. His mother guilts him with “Family sticks together” while holding her hand out. So he lies about his family to his new girlfriend, who suspects something’s up and doesn’t appreciate his reticence. Wall Street comes with enormous pressure to achieve, and snorting drugs turns out to not be enough in terms of keeping up, so Seyi eyes up some more nefarious options. And then there’s, you know, racism in the air, because it doesn’t pass you by just because you wear a fancy suit to work. Safe to say his plate’s heaped really high and nothing is turning out the way he thought. Ooof.

MV5BYWUxZGVkYTgtNWUxNi00Y2ZjLTk2NDctYTYwN2RmYTczNjdkL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDY5NzA2Ng@@._V1_Aml Ameen is enormously good as Seyi. Not all of the cast is as strong as this, but I also really enjoyed Michael Hyatt, who plays his mother. There is dysfunction, drama, and heartbreak between the two and I could have watched a whole movie just about their dynamic. In fact, this movie would be improved had it narrowed its focus just a little. Seyi’s burdens are great but they result in a lot of sub-plots that aren’t well-served in a 90 minute run time. That said, I can’t believe this is writer-director Anthony Onah’s first feature film. He’s already got a polished style that belies a lot of talent. Onah is also a Nigerian-born Harvard grad, so his script is informed if a little busy.

Onah explained that Dara Ju means “Better”, and is meant as a nod to the immigrant’s aspirations. Certainly this dichotomy between ambition and obligation is what’s most interesting about Dara Ju. As much as Seyi embraces his American life, his family will always tie him back to the homeland. This is a fascinating look at the immigrant experience and it’s a bold first work from a soon to be famous director.

SXSW: The Disaster Artist

Before we talk about this movie, we have to talk about another: The Room. Not Room, the Brie Larson kidnap drama, but The Room, the worst movie ever made. Even better: the BEST bad tumblr_megxu99K4x1ry10fwo1_500movie ever made, the Citizen Kane of bad movies, a movie so bad it’s achieved cult status. Tommy Wiseau was obsessed with movies and had enough cash to get one made, so he did. And he did it with such earnestness and such a complete lack of talent that people love to watch it. Ottawa’s own Mayfair Theatre, one of Canada’s oldest surviving independent movie houses, an official heritage building in our fair city, champion of 35mm film, screener of indies and classics, has been showing it for 92 consecutive months now. Each midnight screening is a riot; this cult film draws fans that know the drill. Matt wrote a great review of it a while back, almost nothing about the movie itself, which defies reviewing, but about the experience of seeing, the rituals that go along with it, the things you yell at the screen, hell, the things you chuck at the screen, it’s all a wild ball of fun.

Greg Sestero, co-star in The Room and Tommy Wiseau BFF wrote a book about making this weird movie with its even weirder director. It’s called The Disaster Artist. Ever a sucker for a great Hollywood story, James Franco read this book one day and immediately got a boner. He brought the script to Seth Rogen on the set of their ill-fated movie The Interview, and the rest is history. Well, future history. I saw the one and only screening of The Disaster Artist at SXSW where it was still billed as a “work in progress.” Tommy Wiseau was in the house, and also seeing it for the first time. Big gulp.

Two things struck me about The Disaster Artist: 1. This film was made with love. It could easily mock The Room, as many have, but it doesn’t. This is a loving ode to The Room, and to the friendship that gave birth to it. 2. This film is fucking hilarious.

Even having never seen The Room, The Disaster Artist is still accessible and relevant. Tommy Wiseau is a goddamned character and James Franco is just the man to play him (although Wiseau pushed for Johnny Depp). Franco got into the part so deeply that he directed while in character too. He was in deep enough to fool Seth Rogen’s grandmother when she visited the set, and in more than deep enough to constantly annoy his little brother “Davey” who co-stars MV5BMjA4ZDZkNjEtNTFkZi00YjhjLWFjZTctNDZlOWVmYzZmZjhhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTM2Mzg4MA@@._V1_with him.  James and Seth debuted Sausage Party at SXSW last year, and for me it was a disappointment. The Disaster Artist, however, gave me continuous giggles. They’ve amassed an impressive cast, some with just bitty walk-on parts, which only proves the love Hollywood has for underdog Tommy Wiseau. Or perhaps for James “I’ll try anything once” Franco. Or maybe James Franco as Tommy Wiseau. In any case, I laughed until I cried, and then I slammed some Diet Pepsi just so I could cry-laugh some more. And I did! This movie will make you rabid for The Room but it stands on its own, a complete movie that probably benefits from NOT being written by Franco or Rogen. It’s an affectionate behind the scenes look at Hollywood gone wrong, but it’s also a kind of heart-warming tale about outsiders who can’t break in so they plow their own field, and even if it’s bad, at least they have potatoes. Know what I’m saying? Oh, hi Mark.

 

 

 

p.s. Check out the comments section for a delightful Q&A with James, Dave & Seth.

SXSW: Lemon

At some point we started to wonder if South By SouthWest wasn’t a little incestuous. Yesterday I wrote about a movie called Win It All, which was directed by Joe Swanberg, who has a bit of a creative flirtation going with Jake Johnson. Joe Swanberg also happens to write for the Netflix series Easy. Meanwhile, the writers and director of Lemon also make appearances on another Netflix series, Love. Is Netflix the meeting ground for mumblecore indie spirits?

Anyway. Lemon was written by husband-wife team Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman. Gelman has the unenviable task of starring in a film that was called Lemon because Isaac, the lead character, is a complete dud. If he was a car, you’d return him directly to the lot and tear your hair out while screaming at the manager. If you’re his girlfriend of a decade, well, you start creating distance, and then you cut and run. That’s what Ramona (Judy Greer) does; she’s only stayed as long as she has because she’s blind, and while her sight hasn’t improved, her self respect has.

The film feels like it has chapters to it. In the first chapter, we see Isaac at work.  He’s a theatre lemon-movie-sundanceteacher, where he over-praises one student, Alex,(Michael Cera) while simultaneously ripping apart another (Gillian Jacobs). Whether he identifies with Alex or is simply jealous of him I can’t divine, but we know that Isaac’s own acting career is in the toilet, almost literally (just about the only thing he’s up for is an incontinence ad). But bonus: Michael Cera, inexplicably bad hair and all, does earn some serious laughs as a super pretentious thespian who’s always “doing some animal work” or some other crazy-obnoxious thing.

The second chapter shows him among his immediate family, which is rife with drama. He’s practically the normal one there, navigating rough waters between his siblings (Martin Starr is his brother) and half-heartedly joining in when his mother (Rhea Perlman) decides it’s sing-along time (a rousing chorus of “A Million Matzoh Balls” is as memorable as it is ridiculous). This is the weirdest family dinner I’ve ever witnessed and was uncomfortably effective at making me feel vicariously bad about myself.

The third chapter focuses more on his post-break-up love life. Despite being a complete loser, he seems to have attracted the attention (or at least the pity) of the beautiful Cleo (Nia Long), whose family is nothing like his. The film makers admitted that the two families represent their own in-law struggles, though I can’t imagine having the courage to put that kind of dirty laundry up on a big screen.

Do you delight in the suffering of others? Isaac is not a redeeming character. He’s thoroughly unlikeable. But the movie itself is almost aggressively odd, from the very first shot. What kind of enjoyment can you derive from schadenfreude? And are you in the mood for something obsessively quirky, something unapologetically, erm, esoteric? These are the questions you must ask yourself before settling in to Lemon.

 

SXSW: Win It All

Eddie’s friend asks him to babysit a duffel bag for him, while he’s in prison. He’s not to touch it, not to open it. Just house it for the duration of the prison sentence, and he’ll be handsomely rewarded. But Eddie’s an addict. He’s not good at resisting temptation. He certainly doesn’t resisit this one, at least not for long. And when he finds loads of cash inside it, it triggers his gambling addiction, never exactly dormant, always waiting for a cash infusion.

Cut to – you guessed it – Eddie’s lost everything. He’s deeply in debt. He is drowning in regret. Win-It-All-MovieAnd also debt, duh. Eddie (Jake Johnson) takes his sob story to his older brother Ron (Joe Lo Truglio) who’s heard it all before but takes pity on him, and offers him a job in the family business. If Eddie works as a landscaper for the months remaining on the prison sentence, Ron will make up the difference in whatever else he owes. It’s a great deal, and Eddie throws himself into the honest work for the first time in his life, extra determined to turn things around because of a new woman on the horizon. But guess what? Prison buddy is getting out early! So the months-long plan to make the money back is now completely fucked, and so is Eddie. What shall he do?

Director Joe Swanberg is known for his low-budget, genre-blending stuff. He had such a good time doing Drinking Buddies that he decided to keep the mojo going with its star, Jake Johnson, and the two became a writing team who eventually came up with the script for Win It All.  Jake Johnson is extremely charismatic, which helps sustain his losery character through lots of personal ups and downs. Pairing him with Joe Lo Truglio is the real stroke of genius. He’s affable and earnest, the exact opposite of the sleaze that pops up in Eddie’s other life. Keegan-Michael Key also pops up as his sponsor, who is sometimes shockingly and hilariously very un-sponsor-like.

The script is true to addictions without getting lost in their seriousness. It does go to some dark places, inevitably, but you can feel Johnson and Swanberg always tugging the reins back toward the light. It’s the little field trips from expectation that elevate this material about the normal schtick. Win It All ends up being a little slice of human nature with room for some character work. Falling into this film is a heady experience; it keeps subverting its own subversion, which keeps you on your twinkle toes. And possibly casting some side-eye to whatever duffel bags are in your closet.

 

Catch this film April 7 on Netflix.