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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SXSW Film Fest 2012: Day Five

This is my third year down in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and I think that I’ve finally figured out the science to covering the event all on my lonesome. Instead of past years, where I’ve done a mix of both full-length and shorter movie reviews, this time around, I’m going to be doing daily blogs with even shorter, capsule-style reviews of the films that I saw the previous day. I’m hoping this will make me more productive than usual, but as my schedule is constantly in flux, please bear with me. And if you can’t wait for my daily posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonZingale for more.

“Casa de mi Padre”

Will Ferrell’s Spanish-language comedy “Casa de mi Padre” is exactly what you’d expect from the “Saturday Night Live” alum; although it’s good for a few laughs, the one-joke concept results in more misses than hits. Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, the eldest son of a Mexican rancher in danger of losing his land. When Armando’s brother Raul (Diego Luna) returns home with his new fiancée (Genesis Rodriguez) pledging to save the ranch, he inadvertently thrusts the family into a war with a local drug lord (Gael Garcia Bernal). Essentially a telenovela done in the style of a grindhouse film, “Casa de mi Padre” is amusing at times, but it never amounts to more than a few chuckles. This is one very odd movie – even more than the typical Will Ferrell comedy – complete with musical numbers (“You No Se” is not only funny, but catchy as well), painted set backgrounds and talking animal puppets. Ferrell handles the challenge of acting entirely in Spanish remarkably well, but it’s a gimmick that loses its charm pretty fast. Fans of the actor will enjoy his latest in a series of bizarre career moves, but for everyone else, the film’s quirkiness only goes so far.

“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. Based on his one-man show (which was in turn inspired by actual events from his life), Birbiglia stars as a fictional version of himself, an aspiring comedian who hasn’t had a whole lot of luck in life apart from his amazing girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). When their eight-year relationship hits a standstill after Mike expresses his objection to marriage, he hits the road to improve his act, all the while growing farther apart from Abby and dealing with a dangerous sleep behavior disorder. Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s films in a lot of ways, “Sleepwalk with Me” is a witty and consistently funny human comedy about the fear of commitment. Much like his character’s stand-up in the film, the story is entertaining because it’s so personal, and he makes it even more so by narrating the movie with brief snippets of POV segments littered throughout. It’ll be interesting to see how the general public receives “Sleepwalk with Me” when it’s finally released in theaters, because the movie is so good that if you weren’t a fan of Mike Birbiglia beforehand, you will be afterwards.

“Intruders”

There wasn’t a lot of horror on tap at SXSW this year, which is probably why Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s “Intruders” feels like such a big letdown. More than anything else, it’s just not very scary, with Clive Owen starring as the father of a young girl who believes she’s being stalked by a faceless bogeyman named Hollowface. Though he writes it off as a nightmare at first, he soon becomes a believer after witnessing the menacing figure try to abduct his daughter. Meanwhile, in Spain, a young boy is having the same terrifying visions, prompting his mother to seek help from the local priest. While the first act does a pretty good job of setting up the two stories and building tension, however, it never really goes anywhere. Instead, the audience is forced to sit through a number of supposedly frightening situations without so much as a scare, and it quickly becomes repetitive to the point that you lose interest. But where “Intruders” really drops the ball is in the final ten minutes, dragged down by a flimsy twist ending that is not only predictable, but requires Fresanadillo’s to cheat a little to get there. I admire the attempt at creating something original, but when a horror film can’t even play by the rules, there’s no point in watching.

  

SXSW Film Fest 2012: Day Four

This is my third year down in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and I think that I’ve finally figured out the science to covering the event all on my lonesome. Instead of past years, where I’ve done a mix of both full-length and shorter movie reviews, this time around, I’m going to be doing daily blogs with even shorter, capsule-style reviews of the films that I saw the previous day. I’m hoping this will make me more productive than usual, but as my schedule is constantly in flux, please bear with me. And if you can’t wait for my daily posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonZingale for more.

“The Do-Deca-Pentathlon”

Completed way back in 2008 before the Duplass brothers put it on the back burner in order to focus their attention on “Cyrus,” “The Do-Deca-Penthathlon” harkens back to the days before the directing duo was working with A-list talent like John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill. It’s a far more unpolished mumblecore dramedy reminiscent of “The Puffy Chair” that stars unknowns Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly as a pair of ultra-competitive brothers who participate in a homemade Olympics in order to prove once and for all which one is the better sibling. Like many of the Duplass brothers’ films, “Do-Deca” is an incredibly lo-fi production shot with handheld cameras and mostly improvised by the actors. But that’s the problem; it’s almost too much like their other movies. While the setup is ripe with comedic potential and the film doesn’t shy away from getting a bit dark at times, it still doesn’t compare to their studio films. In fact, for as much as fans of Mark and Jay Duplass will enjoy the movie, the one thing that kept running through my head while watching it was just how much better it would have been with more talented actors.

“Small Apartments”

Continuing in the spirit of this year’s festival, “Small Apartments” is yet another case of a great ensemble cast wasted in a movie that is both tonally and narratively unfocused. Based on a novella written by Chris Millis (who also adapted the screenplay), Matt Lucas of “Little Britain” fame plays an eccentric shut-in named Franklin Franklin who has just killed his seedy landlord (Peter Stormare), although whether it was on purpose or by accident is unknown. As he tries to clean up the mess by making it look like a suicide, police detective Burt Walnut (Billy Crystal) is called in to investigate the death, crossing paths with a number of Franklin’s equally eccentric neighbors along the way. Unfortunately, while the story is populated by an entire apartment complex of wacky characters, none of them are given enough depth to validate their existence. It’s great to see Crystal back on the big screen again, and Johnny Knoxville actually delivers one of the film’s better performances, but there’s nothing about the story (or how it’s been executed by director Jonas Åkerlund) that explains why so much talent would be attracted to the project. “Small Apartments” is just weird for the sake of being weird, and it never really translates to many laughs.

  

SXSW Film Fest 2012: Day Three

This is my third year down in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and I think that I’ve finally figured out the science to covering the event all on my lonesome. Instead of past years, where I’ve done a mix of both full-length and shorter movie reviews, this time around, I’m going to be doing daily blogs with even shorter, capsule-style reviews of the films that I saw the previous day. I’m hoping this will make me more productive than usual, but as my schedule is constantly in flux, please bear with me. And if you can’t wait for my daily posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonZingale for more.

“Frankie Go Boom”

It’s hard to believe that a movie as terrible as “Frankie Go Boom” could boast such a great cast, but that’s what makes it so disappointing. Although there are a number of problems plaguing the film, the most detrimental one is the script itself, which fashions an idiotic plot around a rat race to track down a sex tape made by wannabe director Bruce (Chris O’Dowd) after he secretly films his brother Frankie’s (Charlie Hunnam) latest moment of humiliation in front of a cute girl named Lassie (Lizzy Caplan) that he meets while in town for Bruce’s release from drug rehab. With the exception of Frankie and Lassie, however, the rest of the characters veer dangerously close to parody by acting like complete imbeciles for the sole purpose of progressing the tale. It’s incredibly lazy storytelling on the part of writer/director Jordan Roberts, and as a result, you never really care what happens to anyone. That doesn’t stop the actors from playing along anyway – particularly Ron Perlman as Bruce’s former cellmate, who has since gotten a sex change operation (and believe me when I say that it’s every bit as disturbing as you might imagine) – but it’s all for naught, because no amount of acting prowess can change the fact that “Frankie Go Boom” never had much of a chance with a story as dull and stupid as this.

“The Raid: Redemption”

Action movies don’t get much cooler or more exciting than “The Raid: Redemption.” Whereas Welsh-born writer/director Gareth Evans’ first Indonesian feature “Merantau” had a few cool fight sequences but was an otherwise mediocre film, “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. Iko Uwais stars once again, this time as a rookie member of a SWAT team on its way to take down a ruthless crime lord who operates out of an apartment complex populated with other low-life scum. But when the team’s cover is blown and they’re locked inside, the surviving members must shoot, stab, punch and kick their way through an army of thugs in order to get out alive. This is about as close to non-stop, wall-to-wall action that I’ve ever seen, and what makes it so jaw-droppingly awesome is the incredible fight choreography, including what is easily some of the best close-quarters combat ever committed to film. Though I was a little worried that the movie wouldn’t live up to all the hype that it’s amassed on the festival circuit over the last few months, “The Raid” is every bit as good as everyone says it is and not to be missed.

“Extracted”

Nir Paniry’s directorial debut “Extracted” is a sci-fi film in theory, but like most indie movies in the genre, it takes a distinctly low-key approach to the material that actually works in its favor. Sasha Roiz stars as Thomas Jacobs, a scientist who invents a way to revisit someone’s memories from the inside. When his secret financier demands a premature demonstration of the device on a suspected murderer to determine whether he committed the crime, Tom reluctantly agrees, despite his moral trepidations. After the device malfunctions and Tom gets trapped inside the criminal’s consciousness, however, he spends the next four years trying to find a way to escape. It’s a really interesting setup that’s clearly been influenced by a number of other high-concept films in the genre – from “Pi,” to “Source Code,” to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – but Paniry does just enough to differentiate it from the pack. Though the acting is spotty at times (particularly from Dominic Bogart, who plays the heroin-addicted felon) and the twist ending feels a little too cute for its own good, “Extracted” is a smart and enjoyable sci-fi thriller/crime procedural that will eventually find an audience, whether it’s in theaters or on DVD.

  

SXSW Film Fest 2012: Day Two

This is my third year down in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and I think that I’ve finally figured out the science to covering the event all on my lonesome. Instead of past years, where I’ve done a mix of both full-length and shorter movie reviews, this time around, I’m going to be doing daily blogs with even shorter, capsule-style reviews of the films that I saw the previous day. I’m hoping this will make me more productive than usual, but as my schedule is constantly in flux, please bear with me. And if you can’t wait for my daily posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonZingale for more.

“Nature Calls”

I never got the chance to see director Todd Rohal’s “The Catechism Cataclysm” when it played at SXSW last year, but after watching his new comedy “Nature Calls,” I’m kind of glad that I didn’t. The film stars Patton Oswalt as Randy, an assistant scoutmaster desperately trying to help his father’s deteriorating Boy Scout troop regain its former glory. When the few remaining members ditch their upcoming camping trip in favor of going to a sleepover for the adopted son of Randy’s brother, Kirk (Johnny Knoxville), however, he crashes the party and convinces the kids to go camping with him. What follows is an incredible mess of a movie that tries to pass juvenile stupidity off as comedy, but instead barely registers a laugh due to Knoxville and Rob Riggle’s annoyingly over-the-top performances as idiot man-children. There’s actually a good message straining to be heard amongst all the stupidity, but despite its attempt at balancing vulgarity with heart, “Nature Calls” fails on nearly every level imaginable. It’s a shame that this will go down as Patrice O’Neal’s final film performance, because although it got a good reception from the SXSW crowd, this would never make it onto a theater screen through more conventional means.

“Safety Not Guaranteed”

Colin Trevorrow’s feature film debut is exactly the kind of movie that you go to a film festival hoping to see. Based on a real-life classified ad that was posted by a man seeking a partner to go back in time with, the movie stars Audrey Plaza, Jake Johnson and Karan Soni as a trio of Seattle magazine employees who track down the mystery author hoping it will lead them to a good story. What they don’t realize is that although Kenneth (indie go-to guy Mark Duplass) may be a little eccentric, he honestly believes that he’s solved the riddle to time travel. 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. All four actors deliver some incredibly honest and funny performances, but it’s Plaza who shows that she can do a lot more than spit out a witty one-liner and mug for the camera. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is original, humorous, heartfelt and, perhaps most importantly, filled with immense hope. And in a cinematic landscape fueled by cynicism, it’s nice to see a movie that hasn’t given up on the human race, no matter how strange we may be.

“Killer Joe”

William Friedkin hasn’t made a great film in a very long time, and while “Killer Joe” doesn’t exactly remedy that, it’s the best movie that he’s made in a while. Adapted by Tracy Letts from his stage play of the same name, the self-described “totally twisted, deep-fried, Texas redneck trailer park murder story” is one of the most intense and polarizing moviegoing experiences in recent memory. Matthew McConaughey stars as the title character, a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a contract killer. When he’s hired by a young man (Emile Hirsch) in debt to a crime lord to kill his mother and collect on her $50,000 life insurance, Joe takes his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral until he’s paid for his services. But as is usually the case with movies like this, things go horribly wrong, and although the events that transpire will likely divide audiences (particularly a tension-packed final act that gets a bit weird and perverse), it’s as oddly fascinating to watch unravel as it is repulsive. Every single performance is great – from Gina Gerson’s devious stepmom to Thomas Hayden Church’s clueless father – but it’s McConaughey who truly commands the screen with his best role in ages. It’s about time the actor showed off his full potential, and this white trash “Blood Simple” does that and more.

  

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