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SxSW: Bite-Sized Movie Reviews!

A look at five films screened at SxSW 2011

Photography by Tim Grant







By Mike D’Avria

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is close to the perfect documentary for any person who is familiar with the red-furred character who has impacted the lives of millions, and perhaps billions, of children across the globe.

The film follows the life of the voice (and hand inside) of Elmo, Kevin Clash, who grew up a poor child in Baltimore. Although poor, Clash did not come from a broken home as the documentary shows how supportive his parents were of his dreams to work for Jim Henson. In fact, his mother and father inspired the lovable nature of Elmo.

The documentary works so well because almost everything shown in the film is completely unknown to the audience as seeing the inner-workings of Sesame Street is pretty rare. Most viewers will be surprised to learn that Clash is a large African American man who looks more like a defensive end than a spokesman for love and unity, let alone learning the process of how Elmo was created.

Being Elmo follows Clash’s entire life; from the time he first cut up a nice jacket of his fathers to create a monkey puppet, to his mentorship from Kermit Love, the creator of most of Henson’s Muppets when Clash was a teenager.

The film is funny, sweet, inspiring and emotional. It’s nearly impossible not to tear up during a scene from Henson’s funeral.

Director Constance Marks told me after the film that they currently have a few offers to buy and distribute the doc, so make sure to put Being Elmo on the must-see list when it comes to town or is released on DVD.

Turkey Bowl

The film Turkey Bowl premiered at South by Southwest to a packed theater at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Ritz, and seemed to please the entire audience. The film is a 62-minute comedy about ten friends who get together every year to play a game of touch football. The reason the length of the film is important to note is because it takes place in real-time, with the start of the film being the arrival of the friends, the division of teams and then the playing of the game.

It’s truly a great concept, and is filled with lots of funny moments from more than half the cast. Part of the hilarity comes from the fact that only a few of the game participants take the game seriously, with the others continually making wise-ass remarks about the overly competitive nature of the rest of the cast.

The real heart of the movie though has nothing to do with the game itself, and is truly about how groups of friends usually drift apart when they get to their late 20s and early 30s. The annual game is a way for these friends to get back together, at least once a year, to remember that friendship.

The film stars mostly newcomers as well as a few actors who have had moments of exposure including Kerry Bishé, who starred in the final and unsuccessful season of Scrubs; and Bob Turton, who has starred in several Funny or Die exclusive shorts including the hilarious “High Five Hollywood.”

Turkey Bowl is the first long-form film (62-minutes isn’t really feature length) from writer/director Kyle P. Smith, but should open some doors open for future films. You can view the trailer here.

A Matter of Taste

A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt is a documentary about several years in the life of the youngest chef to ever receive a 3-star review from the New York Times. The film crew follows the talented and difficult chef during the last decade when New York City saw a drop in fine dining customers post-9/11.

Liebrandt claims in the documentary that his is not difficult. When he says this, his girlfriend is next to him shaking her head. He claims that he’s just passionate about his food, which many consider to be great art. After disagreements with the owner of his restaurant about the menu, Liebrandt goes through several years creating incredible food in a “dive” restaurant only to see the establishment change to a burger and French fry joint.

The majority of the film features the opening of a new restaurant with a new owner, and their goal to get a 3-star review from the New York Times food critic — the only critic that appears to matter according to the filmmakers. This section of the film is the most interesting as it truly shows to competitive nature of the New York City food industry, and how one review can make or break a restaurant forever.

The documentary is certainly well done and is engaging throughout. The only problem is that Liebrandt may be a genius, but he’s not incredibly likable — something that is needed in a documentary to make people care about the outcome. He’s not a jerk, and his employees seem to like him — even after he yells out them, which apparently is part of the job as one employee says, “At least he doesn’t throw things and hit us; some chefs hit” — he just isn’t the type of protagonist that people will really care if he succeeds in the end. You can view the trailer here.

Page One: Inside the New York Times

The Andrew Rossi documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times was shown on Monday of the South By Southwest Film Festival, and is a look inside the inner workings of the Media Desk of the newspaper during 2009 and 2010. The majority of the film deals with how the Times is currently handling the smaller role traditional media outlets have in this current day when compared to the vast depth of new media.

The film tries to dissect the question, “Is the New York Times still necessary?” To illustrate this point, Rossi compares the 1971 release of “The Pentagon Papers” — something that could not have been done without the help of the newspaper — with the release of documents from WikiLeaks — who did this on their own using online methods including YouTube.

The problem with the film is that the documentary seems to be a film about the New York Times, by the New York Times. It’s not, as was made clear by Rossi after the film during a Q&A, and made extremely clear by Media Editor Bruce Headlam who thought the film was a terrible idea. But, at times the documentary seems to only present one side.

For instance, several scenes show David Carr — the Times media columnist — speaking on panels along with new media people who think the newspaper industry is dead. Each of these scenes end with Carr putting these new media people in their place with a funny and harsh criticism of how new media couldn’t exist without the New York Times, with no additional comment from the new media folk. Ironically, the film was showing just a few blocks away from the SXSW Interactive Festival, which is filled with thousands of people plotting the demise of traditional media.

The film is done well, and is informative, but it seems to be missing its intended audience. The people who want to see this film are most likely the people who have stayed up on current trends in the media industry. It presents almost no new information about what’s going on with new versus old media. Other than the few scenes showing the inner workings of the New York Times editorial meetings, the audience should not be surprised by anything presented in Page One: Inside the New York Times.


Green may be one of the more confusing titles here at South by Southwest, as the film has nothing to do with the color, money, or the environment. The film stars three people — who happen to all be roommates in real life (two of them are engaged) — in a delusional love-triangle created in the mind of Genevieve, the lead female played by Kate Lyn Sheil.

Genevieve and her boyfriend Sebastian, played by Lawrence Michael Levine, move from Brooklyn to a small country town in order for Sebastian to write an article about sustainable living. Genevieve strikes up a friendship with the folksy neighbor Robin —played by director Sophia Takal, who is engaged in real life to Levine. The majority of the film is filled with long-takes and wide shots of the two females conversing about trivial topics like how many people order French fries at the diner Robin works at. The conversations are real, and are unlike any that are typically shown on film. When Sebastian starts to strike up conversations on his own with Robin — like trying to explain what an art installation is — Genevieve starts to imagine the two are having an affair, with graphic fantasies of the two having sex in the woods when she is not around.

Genevieve starts to get more jealous, and the delusions get greater and greater until the audience is to believe that she will snap — like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The payoff never happens and the film ends awkwardly.

Green seems to be against including anything that would make the audience feel like the narrative is fake in any way. The dialogue feels real and so does the jealous rage going on inside Genevieve’s mind. The problem with this technique is that it makes the film uninteresting. That’s a problem, since a film — even one that tries to be as realistic as possible — needs to hold the viewer’s attention, and Green does not. You can view the trailer here.

Pictures and additional content courtesy of Mike D’Avria and Tim Grant

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