Tag Archives: SXSW

SXSW: Blaze

Ugh. You know how they say opposites attract? Well, I wish that was more true. I mean, Sean and I are opposites in some ways: he’s quiet, I’m loud; he’s analytical, I’m passionate and creative. But our flaws are all the same, which is deeply unfortunate. We’re both slobs (Sean will no doubt want to argue this, so I will amend: he’s a slob, I’m just too lazy to clean). We’re both argumentative. We both have poor memory. We’re both procrastinators.

When we saw this movie at SXSW, I’m not even sure we’d gone a full block before I’d declared “not it.” I did not not not want to review this movie. Sean acquiesed, and to be fair, I wrote 27 SXSW reviews, and he wrote 5, so he kinda owed me. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a month. As you may have guessed, we’re also both Assholes, and we’re both deathly stubborn. We occasionally bring up this review with much throat-clearing, and then we discuss it in that overly-polite way that couples who have been married a long time have in order not to divorce over literally every third conversation they have. Still no review.

So fuck, white flag, here it is:

There once was a Texan singer-songwriter who went by the name of Blaze Foley. He was a good musician but not a super successful one; in fact, he wasn’t very successful at life. He struggled with addictions and pushed away the woman who tried to love him. He MV5BNTAxZWU4MjktYmNkNC00NGRiLTk2MDMtNDhhMjkwMWIwYTUzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzM1MTEwMTE@._V1_accessorized his western wear with duct tape and lived in a tree house with no plumbing or electricity. He was mentally unstable, volatile, poor every damn day of his life, and then he got shot in the gut and died. Lucinda Williams called him “a genius and a beautiful loser.” Townes Van Zandt suggested “He’s only gone crazy once. Decided to stay.” The only hits he ever had were when his songs were recorded by other people, and even then lots were posthumous (Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, John Prine). And for some reason Ethan Hawke just really, really wanted to make a movie about the guy. So, using Blaze’s ex-lover Sybil Rosen’s book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze as his guide, he did.

If you’re a music nerd who knows the likes of Van Zandt, Gurf Morlix, Guy Schwartz, and Billy Block, then this film is the perfect way to worship your duct tape messiah. Ben Dickey in the title role and Alia Shawkat as his bride are both wonderful. But I found the movie sluggish, the content unremarkable. I think Sean enjoyed the film more than I did (at the very least he could argue as to why anyone would want to make a film about this particular life) but he wouldn’t write the damn review so this is what you get: meh.

Of course, screening the movie on Blaze’s old stomping grounds means having a lot of his musician friends in the audience, and later on stage, which was cool. But I didn’t know the man and I don’t think I’d have wanted to. And if Julia Roberts can’t get me to listen to Lyle Lovett then no one can. So this was a lost cause for me, a bore and a chore.  Sorry, Blaze. I hope you’re resting in peace.

 

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Ready Player One

We got to see Ready Player One with Steven Spielberg himself at SXSW – it was truly one of the most seminal moments I am likely to ever experience as a movie reviewer, and more importantly, as a movie fan. Sean wrote about it weeks ago, but I realized that I had something to add to the conversation.

I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One back in 2011 and I thought it was a tonne of fun. But it’s a highly nerdy book and I am not remotely nerdy. I do, however, know some nerds, and I eagerly pushed the book on them (it made for an EXTREMELY easy Christmas season: it knocked all the brothers-in-law off my list at once). I seem to recall Sean reading it in Mexico, and as I’d anticipated, he ate it right up. But for the many references that I just didn’t get, I still felt the energy and excitement of the book were translated to me. So while we were excited to hear that Spielberg was taking this on, we were less than thrilled to sit back and wait for three years for it to become reality. And then when were finally treated to a trailer I thought: holy moly, I don’t think I remember this book! So I reread the book a few months ago and prepared myself for its big March 29 release date – yes, we’d be busy in 2 different cities celebrating Easter, and Grandma’s 95th birthday, and my sister visiting from over 1000km away, and making the great variety of baked goods requisite for such a long weekend – but surely we’d be able to squeeze it in. But alas, no need! While in Austin, Texas for the SXSW festival, Ready Player One was revealed to be the secret screening. Both Cline and the movie’s star Tye Sheridan are hometown boys, which READY PLAYER ONEmeans 300k of the festival’s attendees were vying for just 1000 seats in the venue. Some people may be discouraged by those odds, but not Sean! He gamely spent hours lined up outside (while I watched Blindspotting, which was an incredible festival revelation) but his dedication paid off, and we got in, got some pretty fabulous seats actually, and sat among people who were just so incredibly excited to see the movie they hardly stopped cheering for a single second of the film’s 140 minute run time.

First of all, for fans of the book: the movie Ready Player One carries all of the novel’s essence but none of its spoilers. The big, showy challenge scenes are all-new for the movie, so you get to enjoy it and be surprised by, and if I may say: delighted by it. It hits exactly the right tone but it’s new and it’s exciting. And some of the new stuff IS REALLY FUCKING COOL. But Spielberg HIMSELF asked me not to spill the beans, so I won’t. And I wouldn’t want to in any case: not every movie is capable of enchanting us, and I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of that simple little thrill of pleasure.

Second, to fans of Speilberg: this is the most ‘Spielbergian’ film of the century. By which I mean, Spielberg himself has really gotten away from Spielberg-type movies. He hasn’t done blockbustery, popcorny movies in years. Lately he’s concentrated on smaller films, like The Post, and Bridge of Spies, which I have actually loved. It’s a different, more grown-up Spielberg; they’re movies that feel almost indie in nature, if not for the souped up cast. Dramatic stuff, more grounded, dark and moody, and often political. But little Stevie finds his inner child, indeed his inner fanboy, and allows himself to just express exuberant joy once again on the big screen – and even, and I do honestly believe this was hard for him, allow his own film legacy, to be paid homage in this film right alongside other iconic pop culture moments from the 1970s right through the early 90s.

Ready Player One feels like Steven Spielberg has thrown himself a parade, and he’s got every one of his time-honoured tricks riding big loud floats. It’s fantastic. I’ve heard the Internet shitting on the fact that this film is load with pop culture nostalgia and I can’t for the life of me understand that. I mean, the first time you see the film, you won’t notice half, or likely a third, of what’s hidden in there. Spielberg himself doesn’t know every single thing that’s been recreated in the film – he was surprised readyplayerone-56b7d103-d459-4ff3-89ac-e6342be40e01to find a Gremlin long after he’d already approved the scene, and he’ll continue to be surprised by Easter eggs (how fitting, for this weekend!). In subsequent viewings, you could easily play a drinking game with friends, or a Bingo game would be fun, just spotting all the cool things the brilliant art department and visual effects people slipped in there – it’s like the hoarders of movies with so many layers it’ll take forever before you reach the dead cat layer.

I still haven’t even told you what this movie’s about, but you’ve already gleaned that from elsewhere, haven’t you? It’s basically about the near future where the world has gotten so bleak that everyone prefers to live in this virtual world called the Oasis. The creator of the Oasis dies, and leaves the rights to it to whomever can win a little game that he’s rigged. Now, the Oasis is definitely worth a kabillion dollars, but it’s worth even more politically. So while our protagonists are kids, they’re up against not just adults but corporations in order to win control of this thing. And the Oasis creator (played by Mark Rylance) is a guy just enamoured with the 80s, so everything he does is basically a loving tribute to the “golden age” of gaming. But you don’t need to be able to pick up on those references in order to enjoy the story – they’re just the window dressing on a dystopian tale as old time.

The fact is, the world in Ready Player One is not so far from our own, and it feels worrying possible. The real trick, the one the movie keeps bumping up against, is to ask yourself: what are we taking from this virtual world, and how are we using it to make meaningful connections in the real world? Though this fight is online, the repercussions exist in the real world, and this creates an interesting duality between the avatar characters online and their real life counterparts. Though it looks and feels like a game, the stakes are high and the consequences dire. There’s some really flashy editing that allows us to move back and forth between worlds, and some truly exceptional visual effects mean the movement between the two feels natural but looks distinct.

And at its heart, this movie tells a story like many of Spielberg’s best: that of friendship, trust, and human connection. The film omits some of the book’s more subversive themes – race, gender, class – and given its scope and run time, it’s no wonder. There simply isn’t enough space to explore this world from corner to corner (read the book!). Instead, this movie submerses you in a world of pure imagination.

SXSW: More Human Than Human

1977: Star Wars introduces us to helpful and humourous robots like R2-D2 and C-3PO.

1982: Blade Runner tells us that robots can be scary, and the scariest thing about them is when they’re indistinguishable from us.

1984: Terminator is a robot who’s come to destroy us all.

About 5 minutes after we invented robots we started predicting our own extinction at their hands. About a third of jobs that used to exist in the 1980s and 1990s have been replaced by robots. Stephen Hawking has warned us that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” In 1998, that annoying plush toy Furby had more computing power in it than was used to put a man on the moon. Our smartphones today are MILLIONS of times faster. With a god-like lack of hubris we are driven to create these things in our own image (or at least replicate the human brain), but once we’ve recreated human intelligence, and robots capable of building other robots, then isn’t the next step SUPER human download.jpgintelligence – and then haven’t we made ourselves redundant? And yet we can’t help ourselves.

Even within this documentary that explores the dark corners of AI, the film makers (Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting) can’t help but wonder if they can build a robot that will replace themselves. Can they get an AI to direct a movie about AI?

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov so this documentary is like heaven to me. This must be what it’s like to ride a rollercoaster: I am sickly fascinated by the very robots that I fear. Maybe that’s why I love movies like Her (in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an AI) and Marjorie Prime (in which people assuage their grief by replacing their dead loved ones with cloned AI) and Ex Machina (in which Domhnall Gleeson falls in love with an AI even as he works to disprove her humanity) but I refuse Alexa in my home, and in fact have never even asked a single question of Siri.

A.I. is not a question of the future. It’s here. The question is, what are we going to allow it to do? Take care of our aging parents? Drive our cars? Create art? If machines can do all of that, then who the heck are we? That was my favourite part of this movie: really thinking about humanity and what it means to live among these sophisticated creatures – creatures of our own making, and possibly our undoing.

The directors do in fact come up with a movie-making robot, and bring in Billy Crudup and Richard Linklater to comment upon its success. But no matter how they feel, or I feel, or you feel, robots are here to stay. And they are capable of very convincingly telling us how great they are. Could we even get rid of them, if we wanted to? Are we as fully in control as we believe? And if so – for how much longer?

 

 

SXSW: First Match

Monique is not your average high school student. She acts tough and gets into a lot of fights. But it’s easy to judge someone when we don’t know anything about them. I’d say her home life isn’t good, but Monique doesn’t have a home. She has had a series of foster situations since her mother died that all end badly. Her father’s in prison, and she can’t help but daydream about the day he gets out and she can live with him and have some sort of regular life again. Until she runs into him on the street. The daydreams come to a crashing halt right about then. He’s out and hasn’t told her, hasn’t contacted her, and now that she knows – well, he’s not really amenable to her vision of their shared future (to be fair, he’s eating at soup kitchens and engaging in at least semi-criminal behaviour, so he’s not exactly capable of providing a “stable home life.”)

Anyway, poor Mo decides the only way she attract her dad’s attention, and maybe neutralize some of her school’s ire, is to join the wrestling team. There is no girls team so she joins the boys team, despite the protestations of nearly all of the boys.

First Match distinguishes itself from other similarly-themed sports movies because the team is not really Mo’s problem. If a little MV5BNWI5ZTc1MGEtZTU2Ny00M2QxLWEwNmItZDEwMzI0NDVlNjIzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQ0MDUyMzg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_adversity from the boys were Mo’s only problem, she’s probably feel blessed. Instead, Monique excels at the sport and it becomes a source of pride and power for her. Even if doesn’t win her father back, it’s earning her some self-respect, which she needs and deserves. Monique is obviously supposed to be some problem child, but it’s impossible not to sympathize with her.

There are no easy fixes, and the script is bold enough not to offer any. Life is stacked against this kid, and even if the viewer is the only one rooting for her, at least there’s that. I’d like to give her a hug if I wasn’t totally positive she’d roll her eyes at me for even trying.

This movie is grounded in realism that bites. The team becomes her de-facto family, but First Match still retains a sense that Monique is, if not lucky, at least relatively unique in her community because she knows her father and has him in her life. It’s tragic and depressing the lengths she’ll go to in order to keep him there; she’s got daddy issues, but at least she’s got a daddy. The premise seems to imply that this will be a movie about a lone girl in a male-dominated sport, but this turns out be an afterthought. But there’s a lot else to contemplate, and Elvire Emanuelle’s performance is not to be missed. Coming soon to a Netflix near you.

SXSW: Making The Grade

My grandmother had a very old, very creaky stand up piano in her dining room. Once we’d eaten all her cookies and drawn all over her church stationery, we’d pound away on the untuned keys, convinced we were making loud, beautiful music. We were not. But lessons were for rich people and we were not that either.

This documentary acquaints us with a whole spectrum of Irish piano students, those studying for their first grade exams all the way to the 8th. Old and young are peppered randomly throughout; some have natural ability and others are a little plonkier, but they’re all more dedicated than me. The kids astound me, of course. The piano seems the antithesis of our sped-up society and I’m impressed that any of them have the chutzpah to put in adequate practice, persevere through the tough spots, and pursue an accomplishment that isn’t very well rewarded anymore. But my favourite of director Ken Wardrop’s subjects is a woman with short gray hair and colourful tunics who persists though she’s the first to admit she isn’t any good. I suppose that’s what I admire most: yes, the music sounds better coming from the fingers of someone for whom this comes easily – but it’s so much sweeter coming from the clumsy fingers of a woman who possesses not the teeniest drop of rhythm.

Making the Grade isn’t flashy. There are no stylish tricks. But you’ll find that simply pointing the camera at a bunch of people who know a secret – well, the camera loves secrets, doesn’t it? This is what documentaries are for: exposing those we wouldn’t otherwise know. Whether it’s a little girl discover power and confidence in her music, or a woman finding solace and self-care in hers, it’s moving just to see others be moved by music of their own creation. And of their teachers? This is a loving tribute.

 

SXSW: A Bluebird In My Heart

It’s rude to ask Danny what he went to prison for. Instead let’s concentrate on the fact that he’s out, and he’s trying to put his life back together. He’s staying in a motel run by a single mother, and her daughter. He’s washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant. He’s seeing his parole officer every day. He’s getting by by keeping mostly to himself, which is how he prefers it. Too bad things just couldn’t stay quiet.

Clara, the daughter at the motel, is ripe for a new friend. Her own father is in jail and she hasn’t seen him in a long time. When she gets assaulted one night while her mother is away, Danny kind of gets pulled into a scrape that he can’t really afford to be involved in, but can’t seem to avoid either. Now the motel is not the refuge he was hoping for and a-bluebird-in-my-heart-124678he’s awfully tempted to resort to his old methods for dealing with this kind of crap.

A Bluebird in My Heart, in many ways, is asking us whether a person’s nature can really change. Peace and violence will clash, as they must, in a movie that looks as dirty as it feels. Danny (Roland Møller) is an elusive character; a tough exterior shell with a vague interior and mysterious past. Our biggest and best clue to what makes him tick is the Charles Bukowski poem after which the movie is titled. “There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I’m too tough for him, I say, stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see you.” We never fully see Danny, but we do have a front seat for his actions, and the consequences of those actions. It’s not a pretty sight necessarily, but it’s a strength of the script that we don’t have to know him to know him. He’s got anger and pain and he tries really hard to bury them, perhaps in the bluebird’s nest, but once unleashed, well, he becomes a pretty powerful outlet. Danny wrestles with his innermost self, with his nature, with his destiny. For a movie about a violent, hardened criminal, it’s actually quite quiet and contemplative, but when the action ramps up, well, the outbursts are intense. So be prepared, and watch out for the little bird.

 

 

SXSW: Galveston

Roy (Ben Foster) is a hitman on his last legs. Things have gone terribly wrong when he regains consciousness tied to a chair, discovering that instead of doing a job, he IS the job – his mobster boss has it in for him. He manages to escape, and to free the frightened young prostitute, Raquel, on his way out, but he knows it’s only temporary.

Raquel (Elle Fanning) doesn’t have anywhere to go, so they pick up a third wheel (Raquel’s baby sister Tiffany), and head for Roy’s home town of Galveston to regroup MV5BMTc4ODk2MTc5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjcxMzY3NDM@._V1_and hopefully plot some revenge. Of course, Roy’s zero-fucks lifestyle is not quite as becoming now that he’s got a ready-made family, but forgiving-and-forgetting isn’t really in Roy’s repertoire, or his boss’s, for that matter.

On paper it sounds like a typical noir crime thriller, but in fact, in the hands of director Melanie Laurent, it becomes something else. It gets filtered through a distinctly European lens. The pace is sometimes languid, the cinematography often plain old gorgeous. It’s a slowed-down piece that gives both the audience, and the protagonist, time to think, time to plot, time to savour, time to say goodbye. And that drives us off-kilter because the material can be so dark while Laurent’s picture looks so sweet: the difference between what we know and how we experience is jolting.

Roy and Raquel are interesting to watch because we feel that they’re living on the edge – perhaps even on the outer edge of their lifespans. They’re stuck in Galveston and running out of options. Laurent is poetic with her lensing but make no mistake: the reality here is quite gritty and desperate. And Roy is not exactly a redemptive character. He’s kind of an asshole, and Foster, who is good, is not quite sympathetic. And Fanning, also good, isn’t going to go easy on him. Galveston turns the genre on its head, but it’s not smooth watching, and the prognosis isn’t pretty.

SXSW: Take Your Pills

Oh lord – I can’t decide what I’m more relieved about: not being a kid today, or not being a parent today.

Every era gets the drug it deserves, so says the movie’s clever blurb. This generation? This generation takes Adderall. Amphetamines have been around for a long time, but it’s never been more eagerly prescribed to kids than it is today, in the form of ADHD meds, or more abused by students who just like the feeling of being “zoned in” – hence its nickname, college crack.

I’ve never heard of a drug that made me feel old. But back in my day, we took drugs to turn off and check out, but kids today are taking it to check in. And that’s a pretty MV5BNWQ5NDYxNjYtODc4Ni00NmIyLWEyMGYtNGM0N2ZmYjgzYTliXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTg0MzU3NjM@._V1_damning comment on today’s hyper competitive culture in which young adults liken abusing prescribed drugs to drinking a cup of coffee. Like I said, amphetamines aren’t new: The Beatles took them, Andy Warhol took them, Vietnam soldiers took them in order to go, go, go. And then they became horribly addicted, and the drugs became controlled. Except now students are seeking them out as performance-enhancers, faking ADHD to gain an edge while taking the SATs, and getting their hands on drugs whether prescribed or not.

It’s not like this phenomenon was news to me, but being confronted by the statistics in this movie had me uttering “oh shit” with alarming frequency. And that’s what you want in a documentary: facts to open your eyes, and anecdotes to give them colour. Director Alison Klayman looks at the drug’s history, its effects, its draw, its efficacy, the truth and the lies behind it. This documentary takes an issue that may have been niggling at you for a while and makes it not just a headline but an easily digestible information bomb. There are ethics at play here, so ultimately Klayman provides the context but the judgements and decisions are still yours to make – but information is power, and if you’re willing to dose yourself a stimulant, the LEAST you can do is dose prescribe yourself a little reality to go along with it.

 

SXSW: The Breaker Upperers

For such a little country, New Zealand not only has a lot of talent oozing out of its confines, it’s also got a pretty distinct voice. Which is not to compare this movie to New Zealand’s most famous export, Taika Waititi (although it is produced by him), but there is a sense of humour there that is unique to its people, but travels well.

Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek write, direct, and star in The Breaker Upperers about a couple of best friends who, sharing a history of bad breakups, now run a business together breaking couples up. Mel and Jen think it’s pretty genius work. breakerSomeone wanting out of their relationship will contact them, and they’ll do what it takes to make a clean break – anything from singing telegrams, to pretend cheating scenarios, to even faking someone’s disappearance (which on paper sounds cruel, but this is all played for wide-brimmed comedy, and largely succeeds). It’s good money for them and quite entertaining for us, but we start to get an inkling that perhaps this line of work has stunted them – neither woman has a love life of her own to speak of. But when Mel starts to have a little too much sympathy for the wrong (ie, non-paying) end of the couples, what starts breaking up is their friendship, which is inconvenient when it’s the only relationship you’ve got.

The Breaker Upperers will definitely appeal to those of us who appreciate comedies that happen outside the Hollywood mainstream. Sami and van Beek have free reign to mine and prod whichever corners they choose, and they always find some sort of comedic dustbunny. If that means a 5 minute tribute to Celine Dion, then so be it. And it is funny, funny in the way it reminds of you of a movie you might have made with your own friends when you were twelve. It’s comedy that doesn’t have to hit specific buttons. It doesn’t have a predetermined arc; its route is more meandering, and retains the ability to surprise you without forgetting to entertain you.

I’m not sure how much reach this film will ultimately have, but I think it’s one worth seeking out, particularly if you’re a fan of Waititi’s, in which case, both their faces should already be familiar to you. And if they aren’t yet, they will be.

SXSW: Most Likely To Murder

Billy was the king of his high school but high school was a long time ago. He puts up a pretty glamourous facade which is easy(ish) to maintain as long as he’s a long way from home but if people could see the reality of his Vegas life, they might see him as a figure more to be pitied than celebrated. So of course he’s uneasy about returning to his hometown in New York state, especially as it’s likely to be his last visit (his folks are selling up and moving away).

You can never go home again. Home isn’t home. Even if your parents are freaks who have let your childhood bedroom be preserved for the ages, you’ll never be the same person occupying it. The town has changed. Your friends have changed.

Billy (Adam Pally) comes home to find his parents have sold his prized shitbox car to the weirdo next door and worse still, Billy’s ex girlfriend (Rachel Bloom) is dating him! Lowell (Vincent Kartheiser) from next door was a loser in high school, and the guy still lives with his mom. What can Kara possibly see in him? And just when MV5BNjkxM2Y1OGEtMjQzOC00OWI5LWE3NDgtNzBkOGY0YWNlYjU3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1497,1000_AL_Billy’s head is about to explode with all the backwardness, he sees something out his bedroom window that leads him to believe that Lowell is a murderer. But everyone in town has had a lobotomy, ie, they all think Lowell is this stand up guy. What the heck? Even Billy’s own best bud thinks Lowell is a nice guy, so Billy’s got an uphill battle – against popular opinion, and his own less than stellar reputation.

Of course Billy’s got a serious case of wanting to tear someone else down in order to make himself look better (which doesn’t mean his wrong). Dan Gregor’s film is about dealing with who you were, who you thought you’d become, and who you actually turned out to be. Seeing old friends who ‘knew us back when’ really forces us to reassess, and to see ourselves, our progress and success, or lack thereof, through their eyes, and it’s not always easy to see what’s reflected back. We experience insecurity through Billy, who isn’t used to feeling that way. He sees himself as a laid-back, fun guy, so neuroses aren’t his comfort zone. His paranoia acts out on a pretty grand scale, where he’s scaling fences and cowering among dead possums and calling the police, but there’s still a sense of relatability there. And of course, being a fan of Pally’s and basically this mumblecore, indie stuff that he’s so well-known for, I like the improvisational style of the film. I thought it was funny and interesting in a way where you do actually care how it turns out. Who is this creepy Lowell, and does his identity change Billy’s? Do any of us turn out how we think?