The Remains of SXSW ’06


Tim’s final review round-up of SXSW

By Tim Basham

Yeah, I know. SXSW has been over for a month. But if you think I’m going to go to all those films (parties) and spend all those sleepless nights typing up reviews (partying) without sharing my final thoughts, well, I guess you just don’t appreciate true dedication…

Why him, Lord? Really, why him? Don’t get me wrong. I like Kris Kristofferson. A true Texan hero who served in the army and wrote Janis Joplin’s biggest hit “Me and Bobby McGee”, not to mention a few others like “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Why Me, Lord?”. But when it comes to watching him act I always feel I’m watching an uncle or a neighbor or somebody. Not that I have anything against my uncle or my neighbor, it’s just that I don’t see Hollywood knocking down their doors unless it’s to have a beer and shoot the breeze. But back in the 70’s old Kris was a genuine movie star as he aw shucked his way through blockbusters like “A Star is Born” and “Semi-Tough”. He even took it up a step with his strong performance as Sheriff Charlie Wade in 1996’s “Lone Star”. The current generation knows him better as Wesley Snipe’s fix-it guy Abraham Whistler in “The Blade” films. And Kris shows no sign of slowing down, appearing in several movies each year. In his latest, “Disappearances”, Kris plays Quebec Bill, a retired but backsliding whiskey runner who tries one last smuggling run across the Canadian border to save his Vermont farm during prohibition. In spite of his lofty ideals of an exciting escapade, he gets both himself and his son “Wild” Bill (Charlie McDermott) into dire straits while tangling with an old rival. Genevieve Bujold plays the boy’s grandmother who foresees a death in the family. Writer/director Jay Craven is great at using early nineteenth century countryside as the film’s backdrop with many of its winter scenes chillingly realistic. And the performances are excellent including those of veteran actors William Sanderson and Gary Farmer. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for a story full of confusing events and an even more confusing family history. There’s just too much backwoods mysticism that never reaches any level of comprehension. It is as if the characters are all in on the secret but the audience is left out of the loop. And what about Kris? Well, just tell him the beer is cold and the neighbors are waiting.

Bickford Schmeckler’s Cool Ideas
One of my favorite sleepers of this year’s festival, “Bickford Schmeckler’s Cool Ideas” brings new life to what had become old and stale in college comedies. Not since “Animal House” has there been a campus so filled with hapless misfits. Patrick Fugit, who I haven’t seen since his break out role in “Almost Famous”, plays Bickford, an unhappy student quietly living in the basement of a partying frat house. He is forced, however, to deal with the rest of the world when a sexy coed steals Bickford’s private notebook of which we soon learn is filled with grand ideas on a life altering scale. (We never actually see the book’s contents but realize from the reactions of its readers that it’s some potent stuff.) But Bickford’s a little ticked. When he discovers the book is thrown away and sees no hope in retrieving it he decides to check out of college, an event that leads his housemate to mistakenly believe Bickford is checking out, literally, by taking his own life. Although the story itself is fairly simple, it’s the site gags, subtle humor and right-on performances that make Bickford so entertaining. Matthew Lillard, who played Shaggy in “Scooby Doo”, is hilarious as the schizoid bum and then there are the geeky Dungeons & Dragons fanatics who begin to distribute the book without permission. But pulling them all together is Fugit, whose fame may be dramatically upgraded from “almost”.

Hard Candy
It’s a familiar story from today’s headlines. A 14-year-old girl meets a 32-year-old man online where they begin some very provocative conversations, the kind clearly inappropriate for young girls. But in “Hard Candy”, the “sting” comes not from a police detective pretending to be a young girl, but from a young girl pretending to be innocent and naïve, a girl with one thing on her mind—payback. But is he really the habitual, criminal pedophile she believes him to be or just a mixed up photographer who happens to take on the wrong client. We won’t know until later in the film but the journey there is tense, suspenseful and sometimes downright uncomfortable. Hayley, the young girl convincingly played by Ellen Stark, quickly turns off the lonely geek façade as she drugs and confines her guy (played by Patrick Wilson) and begins a game of both physical and mental torture. There are many holes in the film, not the least of which is when Hayley and Jeff first arrange to meet at a coffee shop, in public, with the shop clerk clearly within earshot and the two begin to openly flirt. If either of them had intended to lure the other, wouldn’t they be a little more discreet? And aside from sending the obvious message that pedophilia is a horrible crime, the film does little more than glorify revenge and justify an additional crime. Admittedly, however, there is a small amount of satisfaction in seeing a pervert squirm.
–Opening at select theaters this month.

The Hidden Blade
Expecting a typical samurai film with gravity-defying leaps and invincible heroes, “The Hidden Blade” comes as a pleasant surprise. Although swords are occasionally drawn, famed Japanese director Yoji Yamada employs the heart as the film’s deadliest weapon. Here, Japan is entering a new age as the samurai warrior Munezo struggles to preserve his ancient code of the past while training his soldiers in the warfare of the future. When he discovers his ex-maid is being mistreated by her new husband’s family and is deathly ill, he rescues her and brings her back to health. She stays and serves him again, but soon he’s falling in love with her although marriage to someone of her class is forbidden. If all this isn’t enough, his boss samurai tells him he must find and kill an old friend and classmate who has rebelled against the government. Behind it all are Munezo’s personal codes of integrity, compassion and faithfulness to the samurai ways, which those in charge seemed to have abandoned. Hidden Blade is filled with humor, love, salvation and redemption. What more can you ask?
–Limited release expected this summer.

The Zit
I did have an opportunity to see the very creative, short animated film “The Zit”. Veteran Disney animator Mike Blum who has worked on projects such as “Chicken Little” and “Dinosaur” has directed a memorable short film about a boy discovering a zit right before going to the big school dance. The irritating pimple, however, begins to grow, taking on a life of its own. A struggle ensues before the problem is resolved in a unique, albeit gross, manner. Over a three-year period seventy Disney animators worked on the four minute film in their spare time. The attention to detail and comedic timing is reminiscent of some of the best computer-animated films of the past few years.
–Currently showing at numerous festivals around the world.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold
One of the most talked about concert films of the year is Jonathon Demme’s “Neil Young: Heart of Gold”, in which Young and his band performed over two days at Nashville’s famous Ryman Auditorium. The advance preparation (Demme spent many days staging camera shots and set design while the band performed in a large un-air conditioned building) really pays off. Between songs, Young tells some touching and humorous stories, and Demme’s direction gives us a true sense of being there live. It’s good to see one of America’s treasured singer/songwriters being documented in such a manner. If you were never a fan of Young’s, this film may change your mind.
–Currently showing in limited release around the world.