Saturday, March 28, 2009

Wrapping up SXSW

The 2009 edition of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas, officially wrapped up its run March 21, with more than 130 feature-length films and more than 50 world premieres unspooling at various city locales. Some of the films had previously made their debuts at the Sundance Film Festival in January. A few were even making big splashes before their wide release into theaters (“I Love You, Man,” “Observe and Report” and “500 Days of Summer”).

All the aforementioned films, which held red carpet premieres at the ritzy Paramount Theater, included appearances by their stars – Paul Rudd and Jason Segel with “I Love You, Man,” Seth Rogen and Anna Faris with “Observe and Report” and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel for “500 Days.” (And to answer your question – no, I didn’t see any of them, as I was unable to attend any of those premieres.) But I did get to see writer/director Mike Judge, who appeared for a special 10th anniversary showing of “Office Space.” (More on that later.)

As the festival has screenings covering nine days, from late morning to midnight and later, suffice it to say that catching all the films would be a complete impossibility. Even getting close would be extremely difficult, as a number of the movies only had one showing. So I learned it’s best to just try to make out a short list of films you desire to see, and not to try to run yourself ragged in overscheduling yourself. Of course, you also have to budget in time to stand in line, as getting to most features at least 30 minutes early is highly recommended.
But enough about the festival watching strategy. Here’s a not-so-brief wrap-up of my few days down in Austin.

The Good
• This being my first (and hopefully not last) visit to the film fest, I was impressed by the general organization of it all. Granted, they have had the film portion of SXSW in place since 1994, but from my limited vantage point, things ran fairly smoothly. In my experience, people were orderly, respectful and enthusiastic while waiting in line to get into the theaters. That enthusiasm seemed to carry over to the features themselves, as interesting Q&A sessions were held with filmmakers after every screening I attended.

• The theaters, which included the Paramount, Alamo Ritz and Alamo Lamar, were great venues to watch a movie. It’s truly to a film festival’s benefit to have theaters that have a unique atmosphere – and that’s something that Austin seems to have no shortage of. These aren’t the soulless googleplexes you’ll typically find in a shopping mall. Plus, the Alamo Drafthouses also act as a restaurant, allowing you to order food and drinks right at your seat while watching the movie. Can’t beat that!

• The schedule of films was diverse, offering a variety of genres and topics from which to choose. If you felt like laughing, crying, receiving a good scare, or to be intellectually challenged, you could find something at SXSW.

The Bad
• If you’re not the type that can tolerate standing spending copious amounts of time waiting in long lines, SXSW isn’t for you. Some of the films screening at the festival were so popular that people were lining up a good couple of hours before showtime to secure a seat. This was especially the case for a few of the midnight movies (among which included an early look at director Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell,” set to open in May). Luckily, March isn’t oppressively hot in Austin; still, scheduling time to have to wait in lines isn’t my idea of a good time.

• Having to sit in the front row of any theater sucks – particularly when you were sick the day before, such as I was. But, due to the staff at the Ritz reserving numerous seats for people who still hadn’t arrived by five minutes to showtime (most of them never showed, evidently), I was forced to sit in the dreaded front row. And at an awkward angle, to boot, which forced me to have to crane my neck a bit to try to take in the screen.

But, I managed to feel well during the course of the film, so at least watching from that seat didn’t have any negative physical effects. As it turned out, that was the only real bad experience I had at any of the five films I caught over the four days I was there. If only I had been feeling better on one of those days, that number could have easily jumped to seven.

The Films
“RiP: A Remix Manifesto”
Official Web site
Director Brett Gaylor’s documentary looks into copyright issues in the 21st century, and the lines that have seemingly become more blurred as technological advances have seemingly grown exponentially. His primary case study in the film is Greg Gillis, much better known as Girl Talk, who makes music by mashing up samples from other artists in a variety of genres. Is what he’s doing theft, or true musical creativity?

The documentary makes a compelling argument for the latter, but some could bring its objectivity into question. There’s not a lot of artist protection views brought up in the film, and those that do come are brief and held up for derision. Still, even coming from a biased point of view, “RiP” is a good-looking and sounding film that touches on a timely and ever-evolving issue in this age of YouTube and digital downloads.
Grade: B+

“The Yes Men Fix the World”
Official Web site
This is actually a follow-up to another Yes Men documentary, with this one following the duo (who take on social/political issues through a bit of extreme activism) as they pose as representatives of major corporations such as Dow Chemical, Exxon and Halliburton.

As amazing as it seems, the Yes Men (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) are able to dupe lots of people to speak as these reps at press conferences, seminars and, in one very entertaining sequence, live on BBC News. In that interview, Bichlbaum, as the “spokesman,” says Dow is finally taking responsibility for the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, which was the largest industrial accident in history. Company stock dropped by $2 billion in less than half an hour after the announcement, to give you an idea of the impact that some of their pranks can have.

With the film covering several different pranks over a several year period, it tends to feel a little episodic at times. And some may not agree with their methods at eliciting reactions, but few can argue that these targets don’t have it coming. The film elicits quite a few laughs along the way, while bringing to light serious issues that some of these companies have with their seemingly endless search for profits – at any cost.
Grade: B

“Best Worst Movie”
Official Web site
A documentary paying tribute to something truly terrible? That’s the case with this film that looks back at the now cult classic movie, “Troll 2,” which has been “honored” as the worst film ever at More specifically, the documentary reflects on the phenomenon that has occurred since the movie was released in 1990 – having built up a rabid fan base that revels in the movie’s awfulness.

“Best Worst Movie” director Michael Paul Stevenson, who also happened to star in the 1990 film, has created a great film that is by turns hilarious, touching and respectful, as he tracks down pretty much everybody that had anything to do with “Troll 2.” The obvious standout here is George Hardy, a good-natured dentist in Alabama, who gets a real kick out of the new found popularity of the film and his performance in it.

It should be mentioned that seeing “Troll 2” before this film isn’t a prerequisite, as it’s very enjoyable on its own. But I guarantee your curiosity will be piqued to seek it out on DVD after seeing the documentary. If you have any fascination with the truly awful and bizarre, “Troll 2” should be on your must-see list. “Best Worst Movie” definitely makes that obvious.
Grade: A-

“Office Space”
The festival had a special 10th anniversary showing of the workplace comedy, which was shot in Austin, and stars Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston. While none of the stars were in attendance at the screening (several were in town for a similar celebration the previous month), writer/director Mike Judge was there and aired a special sneak peek of footage from his next film, with the working title of “Extract.” Starring Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig and Ben Affleck, the brief preview was quite funny, and should be out in the third quarter of this year, according to Judge.

I don’t think I need to give you a rundown on “Office Space,” as it’s still a great movie, with numerous quotable moments. But it was great to see it with a big crowd in a sold out theater. Plus, Judge followed it up with a Q&A session. I shot video of it, which I’ll post eventually – once I figure out how to split the 15-minute video up.
Grade: A-

“For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism”
Official Web site
Gerald Peary, himself a film critic, wrote and directed this documentary about the origin and development of film criticism in this country. Numerous critics provided interviews for the feature, allowing people to put a face to the name they may have been reading for years.

The topic was interesting, if not predictably handled, as it followed a general chronological coverage of the career’s history. Its numbers have been dwindling over the years in print publications, while its growth on the Internet has soared, with professionals and non-professionals (better than the term amateurs) sharing cyberspace.

Ultimately, the material’s probably a bit too dry for most people, and skimps on some areas, such as film criticism’s television presence and influence on the industry. Then again, it seems a bit odd to offer criticism on a film about criticism. But, there you have it.
Grade: C+

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