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SXSW ‘09: Friday/Saturday Wrap-Up

It appears that the gray chilliness has passed and the pre-summer sunshine has arrived for the rest of the festival. Which is good, because I only brought one sweater and had begun to feel like a low-rent Mr. Rogers. Here are some personal highlights. Hopefully, more reviews from other contributors are on the way sooner than later…

Strongman — Zachary Levy’s documentary portrait of South Brunswick, New Jersey, strongman Stanley Pleskun, aka Stanless Steel, is like Eugene O’Neill’s The Wrestler meets Song Sung Blue. There could not be a more brilliant metaphor for the punishing quest to achieve the American Dream than watching Stan hunched over, gritting his teeth and grunting as he tries to bend a penny with his own bare hands. Strongman deservedly won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival. It’s a grueling journey, but Levy’s patience rewards.

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo — Bradley Beesley’s rousing documentary about female (and male) prisoners in Oklahoma who catch a glimpse of freedom by performing in an annual prison rodeo starts light and sweet. But as we get to know these women better—most of whom are mothers who have been incarcerated on drug related charges—deeper emotions arrive. If the response at Saturday’s world premiere was any indication, Beesley has a universal crowd-pleaser on his hands. So far, this movie has my favorite opening title sequence of 2009.

Best Worst Movie — What do you get when you take a barely-English-speaking Italian director who travels to Utah to make a horror movie in 1990 with a cast of Mormon non-actors? You get GENIUS, my friends. In 1998, I began writing a book of film criticism called The Ethics of Troll 2. At the time, I thought my friends and I were the only ones who thought Troll 2 was as historically relevant as The Bicycle Thief or Breathless. Turns out, we weren’t alone. Michael Paul Stephenson, child star of the aforementioned masterpiece of horrific awfulness, grew up feeling shame for being in such a stinker. But as word spread and he got older, he realized that he was, in fact, a part of something legendary. If you had told me in 1995 that I would have been in Austin, Texas, in 2009 watching a documentary about Troll 2 with Joshua (Stephenson) and Mr. Waits (George Hardy) sitting directly in front of me, followed by a 35mm print screening of Troll 2, I would have required some form of psychiatric attention. I’ve heard from people who have no affiliation with Troll 2 that they think the documentary is special, so even though I know that I’m biased, I still highly recommend it.

More to come tomorrow…

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

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