Saturday, March 17, 2012

South by Southwest Film Festival

On the Edge at SXSW                        
by Mark Dispenza

There were years of anticipation, and when the moment finally came, I saw stars.  It was adventurous, exciting and just a little disappointing.  It was over too soon and left me wanting more.  I'll never forget my first time.  Yes, it's true.  Indie Film Guru is no longer a SXSW virgin.

The City of Austin, Texas, closes out every winter with a massive downtown party billed as the most cutting edge indie film, interactive and music festival in the world.  After my experience there this past week, I can assure you they do not make that boast lightly.

The crowd at SXSW skews considerably younger than the audience you'll find at most other festivals, and I have no doubt that is how they get away with screening films that straddle the fine line of what might be considered humorous, sexy, important or even tasteful at other festivals.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it falls below the line.  Even so, there's something to be said for the democratic fearlessness of SXSW programmers.  Without them, would US audiences have been introduced to such amazing gems as Attack the Block, one of my favorite films of 2011?

ATB was included in the line-up of midnight movies that most often jockey for the B-movie label with loads of gore, revenge killing, geek tech, college boy humor and sex.  Four of the "Midnighters"  from this year's festival have already landed US distributors, including the bloody revenge movies, Girls Against Boys and The Aggression Scale, Intruders, and Iron Sky, the unlikely tale of Nazis returning to attack Earth after 75 years hiding out on the Moon.

There's lots to love about SXSW besides its indomitable indie film and music spirit.  If you're a filmmaker looking to be the first to incorporate new technology to enhance the narrative of your movie, there's no better place to learn about it than SXSW.  Technology developers and marketers mix with filmmakers on the panels.  This year I learned about HTML5, a new technology that will render the most modern documentary techniques obsolete within 3-5 years.  It's being compared to the introduction of the montage to film nearly a century ago, a technique that enabled stories to speed up the narrative by transcending the restrictions of real time.

Prepare to be amazed and this is just the rough beginning.  Here are some early stage HTML5 interactive demos:

     *  Enter your home address and watch it become part of The Wilderness Downtown music video.

     *  The One Millionth Tower interactive film project

With over 200 films to choose from, I don't claim to have seen all of the best of SXSW, but here are a few of my favorites from the US premieres at SXSW 2012...

Killer Joe:  Imagine that the Cohen brothers got together with Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard one night, got roaring drunk, and decided to write the craziest and most outrageous screenplay they could possibly imagine, and then submit it to their agents solely as a joke.  But the laugh's on them.  When they sober up the next morning, each is told by an excited agent that their screenplay has already sold and been greenlit.  If you can imagine that, you can arrive at some remote idea of what Killer Joe is like.  Billed as a sick and twisted Texas trailer park murder mystery, it's a case of truth in advertising.  From the sick and twisted minds of writer Tracy Letts and director William Friedkin, this film is irreverent and highly entertaining.  

Thale:  I bypassed that other, more hyped cabin in the woods thriller, Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods, to see this Norwegian film, and I believe I made the right choice.  After the body of a long dead old man is found in a remote cabin, two men are left behind to clean up the mess.  They discover a secret underground bunker and a very weird young woman who can't speak.  One of them finds a large, amputated tail stored in a refrigerator and comes to believe it belongs to the strange resident.  Based on tapes and lab notes left behind by the old man, they begin to suspect that she is a huldra, a forest creature of Norwegian mythology.  As they try to solve her mystery, someone or something that terrifies the young woman tries to break in and all three find themselves under siege.  A clever story is enhanced by wonderful actors and a character-driven script.  

Black Pond:  A rather boring and ordinary English family suddenly find themselves at the center of a tabloid frenzy after it was discovered that they quietly buried a man who had been a guest in their home without notifying authorities.  This dark comedy explores themes of longing and alienation in an irreverent, touching and comedic style that will lead you to love its quirky characters in spite of their weirdness.  A first film completed on a shoestring budget, it was nominated for a BAFTA Award as an Outstanding Debut Film.  

Starlet: A ditzy young woman (Dree Hemingway) finds $10,000 in a thermos she buys at a garage sale and becomes curious about the former owner, an 85-year-old woman named Sadie.  The pair become unlikely friends, challenged by new revelations that unfold throughout the film.  This is a beautiful story about the complexity of human relationships, and how people go about getting what they need through their bonds with one another.  Besedka Johnson is brilliant as a first-time actress in the role of Sadie.  

King Kelly:  Writer-director Andrew Neel (Darkon) shot this film entirely by iPhone video, and the quality is more impressive than you probably imagine.  Kelly is a teen who earns money by stripping and masturbating for her loyal Internet followers.  After her ex-boyfriend repossesses his car from her, she finds herself and her best friend on an odyssey to track him down to retrieve the drugs she had stored for a dealer in the trunk. As the night goes on, things spiral out of control, until they reach an explosive conclusion that will destroy her life and the lives of everyone around her.  The audience laughter throughout the beginning of this film turned to gasps of horror by the end--an effective indictment of narcissistic youth in today's permissive environment.  

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