SXSW Wrap-Up Report


Tim’s take on “Knocked Up”, “The Lookout” and more

SXSW started off with two directorial debuts at the historic Paramount Theater in Austin. First, Alan Cumming introduced the film he also starred in, �Suffering Man’s Charity�. (Technically, Cumming had co-directed �The Anniversary� with Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2001.) And then writer Scott Frank (�Minority Report�, �The Interpreter�, �Little Man Tate�, �Dead Again�) showed his film �The Lookout� starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

While interviewing Joseph Gordon-Levitt about his role in the new Miramax film �The Lookout� it was good to hear his favorite screenplay by Scott Frank is also my favorite��Dead Again�, the 1991 thriller starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. That was the first time I had experienced a Frank script but not the last. Since then he has written a wide range of screenplays like �Little Man Tate�, �Get Shorty�, �Minority Report� and �The Interpreter�. But Frank tells me they all have one thing in common�”identity”. His films have characters with identity issues that he says are like life itself. And Frank himself has made a very big identity adjustment by directing �The Lookout�, his first film. It’s an identity that suits him.
Gordon-Levitt plays Chris Pratt, whose life was dramatically changed four years earlier when he suffered a severe head injury in a car accident. On the outside, he seems fine. But his damaged brain has left him handicapped in speech and memory. The only job he can keep is as a nightime janitor for a small-town, Kansas bank. He soon meets Gary (Matthew Goode) who befriends him, and introduces him to Luvlee (Isla Fisher) and both, in their respective ways, seduce Chris into helping Gary and his buddies rob the bank. Originally a popular child star in the films �Angels In The Outfield� and �10 Things I Hate About You� and the popular TV series “Third Rock from The Sun”, Gordon has stepped his game up in recent years with films like 2005’s �Brick�. But in �The Lookout�, his growth as an actor is evident. “It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he says. And he’s happy to be doing it with Frank who Gordon says “was born to make a movie. It only surprises me it that it took him so long.”
The film is well cast with Jeff Daniels especially strong as Chris’ older, father-figure, blind roommate–confirming that the attention Daniels received for �The Squid and the Whale� was completely justified. The gripping script with excellent performances makes �The Lookout� worth the look.

Scotland born Alan Cumming explained to the Paramount audience how Scots express “a very, very dark humor” and told the story of how Bono of U2 was speaking at a concert in Glasgow and asked the audience to be completely quiet. “And he clapped his hands,” related Cumming. “And he clapped his hands again. And he clapped his hands again. And he said to the audience, ‘Every time I clap my hands a child dies in Africa.’ And this voice in the front row went ‘Well stop fucking clapping your hands then!'” It was a great way to open a film filled with dark humor. Giving one of his best performances as an actor, Cumming cries, flirts, tortures and sashays his way through �Suffering Man’s Charity� as the failed composer/music teacher John Vandermark. Did I say “tortures”? That’s just one of the unexpected turns taken by Vandermark who invites young men into his �Sunset Boulevard�-like house in hopes of inspiring them to greatness, and possible seduction. We quickly learn, however, that his latest guest, aspiring novelist Sebastian (David Boreanaz), creates a challenge. Rather than spending quality time with John, Sebastian spends his evenings cavorting with women and his days sleeping. That, along with the debt Sebastion has incurred, is too much for the “suffering” Vandemark who finally cracks and takes out his frustrations on Sebastion.
The dialogue is an ideal vehicle for Cumming’s talent, and he uses his stage experience (Tony Award for �Cabaret�) to great advantage as the flamboyant Vandermark. The story has some weaknesses toward the ending, however, with some disjointed resolution. But still, seeing Cumming go freaking crazy makes the experience totally worthwhile.

2nd Day-SXSW Cookbook
Recipe for Romantic Comedy:
1 Guy
1 Girl
A little sex
1 Wacky Friend of Guy
1 Antagonist
1 Life Changing Event
Mix thoroughly.
Note: To impress judges, you may also want to include one original script.
I saw two films during my second day of SXSW that cooked up this time-tested favorite, each with mixed results…
Breakfast of Champions?
I left one ingredient out that is frequently used to “spice up” an independent film–inserting a “name” actor into the mix. �Flakes�, which follows the conflict between two rival Breakfast Cereal Cafes in New Orleans, features Zooey Deschanel and Christopher Lloyd. Zooey plays Miss Pussy Katz whose boyfriend Neal (Aaron Stanford) manages the original, homegrown Flakes Caf� with a loopy, hippie-ish owner played by Lloyd. (Such a stretch.) When someone opens a chain-type location across the street with the same name a feud ensues. The film follows some well-worn patterns from earlier successful comedies like �Clerks� and �Office Space� (and the TV series “The Office”). However, the originality and quirkiness of those films comes across as forced in �Flakes�. Deschanel’s big-eyed expressions just don’t work as well in a weak script. And the chemistry between her character and Neal is seriously lacking spark.

A Little Sex in the City of Vancouver
Filmmaker Paul Fox and screenwriter Douglas Coupland follow the Romantic Comedy Recipe but take a shot at a little originality in �Everything’s Gone Green�. In one day Vancouver resident Ryan (Paulo Costanzo �Road Trip�) gets dumped by his girlfriend and gets suspended from his job for inappropriate emails and admitting that he doesn’t enjoy going to work. (A policy which could cripple national economies if truly enforced.) But everything’s cool because Ryan’s parents have just won the lottery. Or did they? I won’t say, but ironically, Ryan does get a new job working for the lottery itself. He meets a girl who has a boyfriend (the antagonist) and profits from the boyfriend’s questionable business practices. Ryan’s best (see wacky) friend also has a questionable practice–growing prime cannabis throughout the city which he turns into a pyramid plan with surprising participants. To further the cause of originality the filmmakers throw in another girlfriend who “performs” in a live, adult video blog. Oh, and there’s this strange exploration of the impact of a beached whale. A humorous and tasty recipe indeed.


Michael Moore’s impact on documentary filmmaking cannot be denied. Love him or hate him, his run of successful docs has earned numerous awards including 2003’s Best Doc Oscar for �Bowling for Columbine�. Those are the facts–something Michael Moore has problems with according to �Manufacturing Dissent�. Canadian filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine raise doubts on the methods of manipulation Moore uses in his films. Moore claims on camera that his facts are always true, regardless of methods. But �Manufacturing Dissent� shows that not only does Moore stretch and distort the facts, but that he downright lies. And, ironically, he uses the same tactics of controlling the press that he condemns politicians for using.
Just as Moore did little to change minds of either side during the last presidential election, the film won’t change the polarizing opinions on Moore. But it does raise important questions on how documentaries are made, and even labeled. Especially when one film festival representative states that it doesn’t really bother her about how Moore’s film is made, just as long as the message is out there. In other words, the ends justify the means–something that all sides would probably consider unacceptable from our own governments.

Director Joe Swanberg brings another success story to SXSW with �Hannah Takes the Stairs�. Working with many of the same actors and crew from his films �LOL� and �Kissing On the Mouth�, Swanberg’s latest is a very creative slice of filmmaking. It follows the daily adventures of recent college graduate Hannah (Greta Gerwig) as she finds her way through a new job and office relationships. The story is nothing new as films go. But it’s the telling that makes �Hannah� special. The camera work sometimes has the feel of a documentary, not unlike the method used in “The Office”. The dialogue is sharp, fresh and funny. And I suspect that the improvisational delivery by the actors and their wonderfully hilarious expressions are much more scripted then they appear.
SXSW attendees have seen a lot of the cast from �Hannah Takes the Stairs� because of their appearances in numerous shorts shown before many of the festival’s screenings. One shows a sound man trying to attach a mic to Gerwig’s skimpy top, with the actress doing nothing about it other than saying “I’m pissed” and ending with “This better get us into South By” or something to that effect. (One can only hope these shorts will be included as extras in the DVD version of �Hannah Takes the Stairs�.)
Of the film parties I attended, two stood out. First, there was �Grindhouse� co-director Robert Rodriguez’ party at Antones, the famous blues club started by the late Clifford Antone. The band Del Castillo played their electrifying set of latino rock with some incredible guitar work. Rodriguez� sister Patricia Vonne played a great set and then joined her brother�s band Chingon which also included the Del Castillos.
Later the same night indieWIRE hosted their party at KLRU Studios where the �Austin City Limits� television show is filmed. Though a little off the beaten path from downtown Austin, this was well worth the trip and will go down as one of the best parties of the fest. For people who have never been on the set of ACL, it was a treat to see a band perform on stage with the famous Austin skyline backdrop. In this case, the band was Voxtrot (keep an eye out for these guys). The whole affair included tex-mex cuisine and frozen margaritas. Special thanks to the host, indieWIRE founder Brian Clark and the rest of the indieWIRE clan!


Except for Steve Carell, many of the stars from �40 Year Old Virgin� are back with the comedy �Knocked Up�, �Virgin� writer/director Judd Apatow being the most important of the bunch. That’s because without Carell’s “watchable” appeal the film must rely on a strong script. With Apatow, �Knocked Up� has that.
Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) lives with three friends who, together, have major goals not necessarily in the following order: Get high, get laid, get an adult website off the ground. Getting a job is not on the list. When Ben has a one night stand with the ambitious and celebrating Alison, soon-to-be host of E Entertainment Channel (played by Katherine Heigl), it’s obvious at the morning-after breakfast that they are as right for each other as Rosie O’Donnell and Donald Trump. But when Alison discovers later that she’s pregnant, Ben is brought back into her life by necessity, especially when she decides to have the child. A predictable romance with all the ups and downs ensue, but it’s the sight gags by Ben’s buddies and hilarious dialogue that makes �Knocked Up� work so well. And there are a few endearing moments about making the transition from childhood to adulthood–even if it comes while you’re an adult.

One of the things I admire about SXSW is they often look beyond the quality of a film’s appearance. For example, if a low-budget film is made with a cheap, hand held video camera revealing bad sound and poor lighting it doesn’t mean the film has failed at getting into SXSW, especially if the script and/or story is strong. Such is the case with �Pretty in the Face�. About a young woman’s failing relationship with her live-in boyfriend and the exploration of her own sexuality, the film’s story is a little stronger than the actual script. And the script is enormously stronger than the quality of the film production. The acting isn’t bad, either. Writer/director/producer/editor Nate Meyer has proven that he can write. Now he just needs to surround himself with a real cast and crew. And I’m sure a bigger budget wouldn’t hurt, either. But there are stacks of unaccepted films out there that had lots of money thrown at them with little to show for it. Here’s a toast to those “little” films that make it through. Cheers!


It’s kind of ironic that my favorite film of the festival was a low-budget indie made almost 30 years ago. Director Eagle Pennell’s �The Whole Shootin’ Match� inspired Robert Redford to create Sundance. Released in 1978, this charming film follows the lives of two good ol’ boys from central Texas just trying to make a buck and live a life worthwhile. Their friendship is the strength of Pennell’s first film. In 1980 Roger Ebert called it “one of the best examples of a new regional American cinema…it creates characters that are such ornery, dreaming, hopeless and precious failures that you can’t help but loving them.” And the NY Times’ Vincent Canby said the film had “a way of getting in touch with life”. Supposedly, the film cost about $30,000 to make. As I understand it, there were no original masters of the film available for many years. But a whole version was found in Germany of all places and then digitally restored. Film restoration has become one of the most important innovations of the industry, giving us an opportunity to see older films just as their creators intended.

Predators unite!
When speaking with director/writer Taika Waititi and actress Loren Horsley, both of �Eagle vs. Shark�, I brought up the “other” film it is being compared to. “You mean �Poseidon�?” asked Horsley with a mischievous smile on her face because in the film’s first few minutes one word inescapably pops into your mind: Napoleon. As in Dynamite. And it’s true that both films are filled with nerdy, get-a-life kinds of people whose awkward, socially inept practices are painfully evident. But that’s where the comparisons end. Lily (Horsley) has a crush on Jarrod (Jemaine Clement). After getting to know one another at a party where the guests dress as their favorite animals and partake in a video game competition in which Lily, dressed as a shark plays the final game against Jarrod, dressed as–you guess it–an eagle, the two become an item–sort of. Jarrod has an aggravating way of stringing Lily along as he enters his quest to seek revenge on the guy who bullied him back in high school. Lily meekly follows along but we soon learn she’s a lot smarter than she acts. Only Horsley’s performance really stands out among the rest. But the story is fun, the soundtrack from some great New Zealand pop music is terrific and the characters are wonderfully quirky.

SXSW always has inspiring documentaries and this year was no exception. �Lost in Woonsocket� follows a couple homeless alcoholics as they receive help from a television crew to put their lives back together. Starting out as an episode of the A & E series �Random 1�, the tale of down-and-outers Mark and Normand becomes a riveting one, a drama filled with degradation and salvation. You�ll find yourself rooting for these guys, and even crying for them. It may not end as neatly as a TV drama, but reality never does. The filmmakers had graciously sent me a preview copy of �Lost in Woonsocket� before the festival even began. Unfortunately it got lost in the morass I call my office and just recently found it. Glad I did.