SXSW ’15: Mike S. Ryan’s Wrap-Up

The SXSW Film Fest continues to program excellence and fight the noise of concurrent events

Real Cinema is still being made despite being now dwarfed at this festival by TV, technology and sports conferences running concurrently. There’s even rumors of some sort of food conference being added next year which only added to our sense that the arts have become a minor player in this festivals larger vision. What ever happened to the concept of an arts festival? Why does everything need to get bigger and more expansive? Is it greed or just a plain, simple-minded desire to get national attention and film and music alone no longer make a worthwhile reason to gather artists and fans? Welcome to the reality of cinema in the 21st century, we are no longer the dominant visual medium. So what, get over it.

We’ve become a small, bruised, sweaty and twitchy crowd, those of us who are still in the game for the love of cinema. But there were plenty of devotees present at the near sold out screenings of the festival’s best recent examples of American Cinema,:Rick Alverson’s Enterainment and Todd Rohal’s Uncle Kent 2. There were also many “films” that felt like TV sitcoms without the commercials but there was also plenty of great solid work done by newcomers. Despite the commerce driven tech chatter and the banal TV series promos there was still plenty of great, non-star driven, auteur lead low budget American cinema. Here are a few of my faves, look for my longer reviews of Lamb and Creative Control coming soon. Here are some capsule type reviews to tide you over.

Uncle Kent 2, Directed by Todd Rohal, written by and starring Kent Osborne

Joe Swanberg directed the original Uncle Kent back in 2011 and here he returns as director of a pre-credit sequence in which he tells Kent why he doesn’t want to direct a sequel. This portion of the film is in it self hilarious as a send up of typical Mumblecore casual kitchen sink “reality.” Post head credits, Rohal takes over and the film lurches and explodes into a reality based inner journey delving deep into Kent’s madness. Our hero goes to Comic-Con and issues regarding Artificial Intelligence, gaming and inane comic fantasy escapism merge with Kent’s personal search for meaning in a world that quite simply has gone mad. It was described to me by some as “not a real movie” and by others as a shaggy dog story full of nonsensical inarticulate ramblings . I found it to be both articulate and very much a realistic portrait of legitimate paranoia regarding our need to escape from both ourselves and our day to day, Mumblecore life through technology. Rohal rocks it once again and the film serves as an antidote to the more mainstream banal TV visions of directors who are just desperate to find some sort of imagined mainstream audience. More directors need to follow Rohal’s lead and allow themselves to truly takes risks and be less concerned with making “literal” sense. Allow your head to explode and let this film take you down into it’s own strange rabbit hole.

 

Babysitter written and directed by Morgan Krantz

Is it Film or is it TV? That’s the key question every filmmaker and producer should be asking themselves before they enter into the booby-trapped cinema space. Most films at American film festivals should have been staged as webisodes because they are conceived and rendered with the same passive directorial approach that is required stylistically in most TV comedy/dramady shows. What makes for a dramatic experience cinematic? Compare Babysitter, the work of a true filmmaker, to the more pandering films at SXSW and you’ll know what I am talking about.

Babysitter is a custody battle plot set in L.A. where the young hero, played with passionate and painful indifference by Max Burkholder, must decide if he stays with his selfish mother or leaves her for a distant, unemotional father. Burkholder’s moody character, Ray, at first seems like the typical spoiled snot nosed rich kid yet as we see him direct all of his torment, hopes and needs onto the shoulders of outsider babysitter Anjelika, played by the dynamic Danièle Watts, his character and the film, come alive. Director Krantz gets inside each of these characters in a way that transcends the plot, we feel their pain and their presence long after their lines are spoken. As opposed to most films where the film is edited to an inch of the delivery of the dialogue and you get no sense of an actual reality beyond the lines and the plot. In Babysitter we get to truly experience the alienated lives in the uppercrust Hollywood life of these damaged cast offs. In true film it’s not the story that matters but how that story is told. Babysitter is a power trio between actors Burkholder, Watts and director Krantz. Let’s hope Krantz stays the course and keeps on making more real films like this small jewel.

Hot Sugar’s Cold World director Adam Bhala Lough

This is yet another dynamic cinematic investigation into the life of an artist by multi-format master Adam Bhala Lough. Adam started his career and his auteur theme with his first feature, the fictional drama Bomb the System (2002) which stared Mark Weber as a graffiti artist backed into a corner by society’s rules and expectations.

Hot Sugar, which is a multilayered film that on one level is a portrait of soundscape artist, producer and DJ Nick Koenig. On another level the film is about death, friendship, silence, identity, sound and an investigation into what it means to be a true artist. Even though the film is a portrait of the artist as wanderer, Lough depicts the journey with a velocity that is driven by the director’s and the subject’s desire to create a life narrative that has meaning and import. I would also make the film required viewing for all directors and producers and any film crew member who grumbles when the sound man demands silence for ROOM TONE at the end of a location wrap.

The Automatic Hate written and directed by Justin Lerner

One of the joys of the SXSW festival is that there are so many features that star lesser-known actors in meaty, character driven dramas. Joseph Cross and Ricky Jay are two actors who, in my opinion, just don’t get enough challenging lead roles. Here they are given the roles of a suspicious and skeptical wayward son and a disgruntled reclusive uncle in a family history drama. Cross plays Davis Green who discovers that his father has a brother who has gone unmentioned. Through a relationship with his uncle’s pretty daughter, Davis risks everything to find the dark truth about why his father and uncle have vowed to never talk to each other. Despite several unexpected plot twists the film stays firmly grounded in the emotional experience of Joseph’s character who is tossed and torn by the demands of family and friends. A film for anyone who ever felt tempted by one of those Family Tree dot com advertisements jabbing you to look backwards into why your aunt or uncle was never present at family events.

– Mike S. Ryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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