2012 SXSW Film Festival Recap

If you’ve never been down to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest (whether it’s for the music and film festivals or the interactive conference), it’s something that you need to experience at least once, because the city exudes a vibrant and welcoming energy that makes it very hard not to have a good time. This year marked my third consecutive trip to the SXSW film festival, and though my virgin voyage was a bit of a baptism by fire, I was practically oozing the confidence of a grizzled veteran this time around. I knew exactly what to pack, how to plan and what to expect when I got there.

At least, that’s what I thought, but Mother Nature has a funny way of messing up your plans. From airline-wide delays that had me sprinting across Dallas-Fort Worth airport to catch connecting flights, to the miserable weather that I was greeted with when I arrived, it wasn’t exactly the greatest start to my trip. Apart from the almost non-stop rainstorms that put a damper on the opening weekend festivities, the only thing that could have made it any worse was if the movies I had chosen to see weren’t very good. And sure as the rain continued to fall (from Thursday night to Sunday afternoon, with hardly a break in between), there were more duds than normal at this year’s event.

It’s not that I expected to love every movie that I saw at the festival (you’d have better luck winning the lottery), but some of them – including star-studded comedies like “Nature Calls,” “Frankie Goes Boom” and “Small Apartments” – were so terrible that even a direct-to-DVD release would be more than they deserve. “Nature Calls,” in particular, is so egregious that I almost left before the first act was even over, and I’ve never walked out of a movie in my life.

Fortunately, I was able to catch a number of really good films as well. In addition to the long-delayed horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods” and director William Friedkin’s controversial crime thriller “Killer Joe,” there were three movies that I enjoyed so much that they’ll likely end up on my Top 10 list by year’s end. Below are highlights from my reviews of those films:

1. “Sleepwalk with Me”

Most stand-up comics probably only dream about making a movie as funny and honest as Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk with Me,” let alone one that marks their directorial debut. Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films in a lot of ways… if you weren’t a fan of Birbiglia beforehand, you will be afterwards.

2. “Safety Not Guaranteed”

A character-driven dramedy with equal parts humor and heart, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a beautiful film about the human spirit that is impossible to ignore. [It’s] original, humorous, heartfelt and, perhaps most importantly, filled with immense hope.

3. “The Raid: Redemption”

“The Raid” is an unrelenting, action-packed can of whoop-ass that delivers one of the most crowd-pleasing moviegoing experiences of the past decade. This is about as close to non-stop, wall-to-wall action that I’ve ever seen… including what is easily some of the best close-quarters combat ever committed to film.

The week got better as the weather improved, and although I didn’t carve out nearly as much free time to explore the city as I had originally planned, I did happen to stumble upon a cool sports park operated by Nike in support of their new FuelBand, a USB fitness bracelet that tracks your activity throughout the day. Taking up nearly an entire block, the park featured a basketball court, a miniature skate park, and a turf soccer field that allowed me to blow off a little steam in between screenings. I even spoke with one of Nike’s on-hand representatives about the new FuelBand, and was so impressed by the short demonstration that I contacted the company about getting one of the in-demand devices to review for Bullz-Eye.

It was nice to get out and kick the soccer ball around for a while, but it was one of just many small thrills during my trip. I also had the pleasures of meeting director Bobcat Goldthwait (who was at the festival with his new film “God Bless America”) during a random encounter at local hangout The Highball; I had the chance to interview Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon and Jamie Chung, among others; and I enjoyed the many delicacies that Austin has to offer, including personal favorites like Freebirds (think Chipotle but better), sandwich chain Schlotzsky’s, and of course, the delicious $5 milkshakes at the Alamo Drafthouse. My trip may have had some hiccups along the way, but as has always been the case with SXSW, the one-two punch of some great movies and that inescapable Austin charm made it yet another festival to remember.


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A chat with Jamie Chung of “Eden”

Jamie Chung is one of those rare cases of a reality TV star actually forging a successful career in Hollywood. After getting her big break as a cast member on MTV’s “The Real World: San Diego,” Chung made the transition into acting with a recurring gig on “Days of Our Lives” and guest roles on other popular series. Over the last few years, the actress has continued to make a name for herself in films like “Dragon Ball: Evolution,” “Sucker Punch” and “The Hangover: Part II,” and with a full slate of projects on the way, it looks like she’s here to stay.

I had the chance to speak with Chung while in Austin, TX for the South by Southwest film festival where she was promoting her new indie drama, “Eden,” based on the real-life story of human trafficking survivor Chong Kim, and it’s the kind of role that’s going to do great things for her career. The film celebrated its world premiere by also winning a number of awards, including Audience Awards for Best Narrative Feature and Best Director, as well as a Special Jury Recognition for Chung’s performance. The actress met up with me at the bustling, historic Driskill Hotel the day after the movie’s premiere for a quick chat on all things “Eden.”

BE: “Eden” represents a pretty drastic change in tone compared to the movies that you’ve previously done. Had you been actively seeking more dramatic roles?

JC: You know, I think every actor craves to really sink their teeth into something substantial and meaningful. And when the script came around, it’s just unheard of for an Asian-American female having this kind of storyline. It blew my mind that this story existed and that Chong came forward and shared this story. As soon as I read it, I was like, “I absolutely need to be a part of this.” The story itself is so moving, and what she went through is so horrific, but the entire story, what was so beautiful about it is, it’s a story of survival, and the will of the human spirit of how much she wants to live and survive and cope and continue on.

BE: You said that you weren’t aware of the story before you read the script, but did you get a chance to meet Chong before you began filming?

JC: I had the privilege of speaking to her after I was cast. And what was great too was that she also talked to Matt (O’Leary, who plays one of her captors, whom Chong befriends in order to escape) because it was really important to understand their relationship.

BE: The story takes place in the mid-90s, but human trafficking is still a really huge problem today. Have you gotten involved in any activist work as a result of working on the film?

JC: There’s an organization coming out of San Francisco that’s helping girls get out of sex trafficking, but the main focus is local girls – girls within the United States. The first thing when you hear “sex trafficking,” you think, third world country. India. Pakistan. Taiwan. Wherever. But what I love about this organization is the main focus is going to go here, and it’s something that’s in development right now. But Chong works with many organizations and she’s very much hands on, and we were entertaining the possibility of maybe traveling to Korea to meet the comfort women, that are now getting really old and are going to stop protesting, but also some other organizations throughout Asia.

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