Wow! I just attended my sixth SXSW (which stands for South by Southwest)! I can’t believe that I have been going continuously since 2014. Why do I love it so much? Well, Austin, TX, is a pretty cool town, but beyond that, SXSW is a multimedia festival showcasing music, film and interactive technology and design, which means there’s plenty to see and do (and even though I mostly watch movies, of which there are more than enough). Founded in 1987, the festival was first devoted solely to music, but then in 1994, the film and interactive conferences were added. Last year marked the 25thiteration of these last two, which run concurrently, though interactive stops midway through the second week, making room for music, which closes out the festival; film runs the entire time. Since 2013, there has been an additional gaming expo, which also starts in the second week.
This year, SXSW ran March 8-17, though I was only able to attend March 8-11. That means I saw fewer films than usual, but still enough to be able to offer some choice recommendations. Sadly, I did not see any of the really big premieres, so don’t look for those below. Then again, those movies are reviewed en masse, so perhaps it’s not so terrible that I offer my thoughts on the lesser-known works, two of which won awards: Alice (1st Place, Narrative Feature Competition) and Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (Audience Winner, Festival Favorites category). What follows are capsule reviews of 6 documentaries and 5 fictional narratives (the ones I didn’t like are spared any mention, for now). For all of them, I have written a longer review for Hammer to Nail, the online magazine where I am lead film critic, from which I pull the shorter version I post here, as indicated in the text (linking to that longer review if it has already been published). Enjoy!
6 DOCUMENTARIES (in alphabetical order):
From director Chelsea Hernandez, making her documentary-feature debut, comes Building the American Dream, an in-depth exposé of the mostly unregulated Texas construction business. The state is home to 4 of the nation’s 5 fastest growing cities, due to Texas’ supposed “miracle” of an economy – fact or fiction? you decide – but such rapid expansion requires someone to do the building. With the Republican majority firmly in charge of regional politics since the ascension of George W. Bush in the 1990s, there has been a consistent push for fewer and fewer workplace rules, since such restrictions are deemed bad for business. Unfortunately, the people who suffer as a result are the builders, the vast majority of whom are undocumented laborers from south of the border. But who cares about them, right? Well, Hernandez does, and so should anyone who dares call themselves human. This movie is for them and their allies, and anyone else willing to listen to reason.
Located on the southeast side of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, in Palm Beach County, Pahokee is home to mostly working- and middle-class families of color – almost evenly divided between African-Americans and Latinos – who take great pride in their community, high school and high-school football team. Married filmmakers Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas, after years of making short films about the area, now bring us a feature-length documentary that chronicles the lives of four students as they go through senior year at that high school, with all the attendant ups and downs. In just 110 minutes, we meet and follow these bright young souls as they struggle to plan for the future while also enjoying the present. Told through observational techniques, Pahokee offers viewers a beautiful cinematic gift: the vicarious experience of the vivid lives of others.
The late syndicated columnist Molly Ivins(1944-2007) wrote with biting wit about many a subject, but reserved her greatest barbs for her home state of Texas, particularly its politicians. Among her many books, perhaps the most caustically titled were the 2000 Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush and the 2001 The Betrayal of America: How the Supreme Court Undermined the Constitution and Chose Our President, both taking our nation’s 43rdpresident to task for being ill-qualified and illegitimate. A force of nature – until a lifetime of drinking and smoking took its eventual toll – she held nothing back, carving her place among the great journalists of our time through sheer strength of will and intellect. Now, 12 years after her subject’s death, director Janice Engel gives us, with Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, the comprehensive cinematic portrait that Ivins and her many fans deserve. Larger than life, both physically and mentally, Ivins emerges from the screen as a legend whose reality matches the myth. She’s entertaining and vital, all in one brilliant package.
Salvage (Amy C. Elliott, 2019) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]
Waste not, want not. So think the people of Yellowknife, capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories, who hate to see good things thrown away. Their municipal dump has long been a treasure trove of salvageable goods, from furniture to appliances and even to food. Given, until recently, the relative isolation of the community and distance from other towns and cities in the rest of the country, folks who move away find it easier, and less expensive, to discard items – even new ones – rather than pay to bring them along. In the same vein, if one can overcome societal disapprobation of raiding a trash heap (weaker in Yellowknife than elsewhere, anyway), then the dump provides amazing opportunities. In Salvage, director Amy C. Elliott (Wicker Kittens) plunges knee-deep in refuse and emerges with a highly entertaining, informative, briskly paced and quite profound documentary about Yellowknife’s (sadly) fading favorite pastime.
What is it like to see the world through blurred vision, or no vision at all, especially if one is an artist working in media where the eyes are a principal tool of one’s craft? I have a hard time imagining how I would type this review while blind, though there is certainly technology available today that makes such things possible. Given the imperfections of my smartphone’s speech-to-text function, however, I wonder how hard it would be to compose more complicated essays in a similar manner. And that’s just writing; imagine being a dancer, a photographer or filmmaker with limited to no vision, and the challenge seems even more daunting. This has not stopped director Rodney Evans from making a film about four such people – one of them himself – who continue to pursue creative lives even as their eyesight deteriorates and/or vanishes. Moving and inspiring in equal measure, Vision Portraits offers hope to all who refuse to allow ostensible affliction to slow them down.
A feature-length version of director Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s marvelous 2017 short documentary, Radical Brownies (published by The Guardian), We Are the Radical Monarchs follows California Bay Area residents Marilyn Hollinquest and Anayvette Martinez as they found, manage and expand a Brownie-like troop, the “Radical Monarchs,” for young girls of color, empowering their charges to think about social justice and changing the world. Knowlton tells the story through a combination of observational footage and talking-head interviews, with the girls as well as with their parents and troop leaders. Indeed, the young Monarchs are always front and center, their piercing intelligence in sharp relief at all times. From diminutive (but vocal!) Amia, to Martinez’s own daughter Lupita, to Quetzalli, Chula and De’yani (one of the few African-American girls in the first troop), these young activists of today should make us quite optimistic about tomorrow, the current rise of white supremacy notwithstanding. May the future be as radical as they choose to make it.
That’s it for my favorites among the documentaries, althoughI also recommend Human Nature and I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter. And these are the documentaries that I saw at previous festivals (and recommend), which also played here: Apollo 11, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Knock Down the House and Maiden.
5 FICTIONAL NARRATIVES (in alphabetical order):
Alice, as a young wife and mother, struggles with the usual work/life balance issues of most women with distracted husbands, though she is otherwise happy. If she and François look like a mismatched couple – he a frustrated writer-wannabe, she far less intense – we have no inkling of anything truly wrong. Until, that is, he swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels one morning on his way to work and then vanishes, leaving Alice with enormous bills to pay lest they lose their apartment. It’s a rude awakening for someone who assumed she had solved life’s major questions. Lead actress Emilie Piponnier carries the story on her thin, but strong shoulders, much more than the blank slate she first appears. Chloé Boreham – as the friend she makes through the new line of work she takes on to make ends meet – is also excellent, and Martin Swabey does what he’s supposed to do in his role as François, self-pitying narcissist that he is. Though occasionally marred by on-the-nose dialogue, Alice remains, throughout, an engaging tale that offers many welcome surprises.
Frances Ferguson (Bob Byington, 2019) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]
An odd, twisted curveball of a movie, Bob Byington’s latest feature, Frances Ferguson, takes us to North Platte, Nebraska, for a Midwestern romp through twentysomething ennui. Frances – or Fran – is an unhappily married mother of one when we me meet her, about to throw the little she has in life away, and with a shrug rather than abandon. Her repellent husband masturbates in his car before coming home, in full view of anyone who cares to look, and the students she supervises as a substitute teacher barely notice her. But she, herself, notices one: the boy, a blonde vacancy on two legs whom she targets for an escapade. Now imagine the whole narrated by Nick Offerman (Hearts Beat Loud) in his usual ironic tones, and you’ll have a sense of the strange disconnect between subject and style. It’s a perfect mismatch, and engaging in its peculiarity.
One Man Dies a Million Times (Jessica Oreck, 2019) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]
The Siege of Leningrad lasted almost 900 days, running from September 8, 1941, through January 27, 1944. Over a million people died from the German blockade of the city – most from starvation – abandoned by Soviet forces regrouping to the east. To create a dramatic retelling of the event is to wade into a rich vein of tragedy and heroism, no additional cinematic tricks required. Along comes director Jessica Oreck (The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga), however, with ambitions beyond the ordinary, transposing the traumatic events of yesteryear from the past to the present. Her film One Man Dies a Million Times is set in modern-day St. Petersburg (Leningrad’s old and current name), though shot in black and white and narrated using text written during the siege. Time is malleable, the search for meaning eternal, and infinity born out of specificity. The result? A haunting meditation on the nature of humanity and how to survive our own downfall.
Vai (Kerry Warkia/Kiel McNaughton, producers; Nicole Whippy/‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki/Matasila Freshwater/Amberley Jo Aumua/Mīria George/Marina Alofagia McCartney/Dianna Fuemana/Becs Arahanga, directors; 2019) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail]
A lovely anthology (or omnibus or portmanteau film, depending on your preferred terminology) of 8 short movies, all tied together through the premise of watching 8 South Pacific women at different stages of life and in different locations, Vai uses its structure to tell a grand, epic tale of struggle, continuity and renewal, all against the backdrop of the legacy of European colonialism. And though the names (all variations on Vai, depending on the culture, though that word means water across the vast region) and islands change, by the end, after watching the entire package, we have journeyed through a complete and, most importantly, full life, despite the brevity of each episode and the changing actresses and languages. Indeed, this is an example where format and conceit blend beautifully, creating a story that resonates far beyond the borders of the frame.
Villains (Dan Berk/Robert Olsen, 2019) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]
A riotous ride through chilling serial-killer territory that turns fear into farce, Villains offers cinematic charm aplenty until its vaguely disappointing climax, though what comes before is charming enough to beg forgiveness for the finale. With winning, demented performances all around, especially from lead baddies Jeffrey Donovan (Dodd Gerhardt on Season 2 of Fargo) and Kyra Sedgwick (The Edge of Seventeen), as husband-and-wife duo George and Gloria, owners of a house into which petty criminals Jules (Maika Monroe, Tau) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgård, It) break in, the movie takes its simple premise and runs full bore with it, bad taste never getting in its way. If you enjoy a good twisted comedy, Villains may just deliver some solid goods.
And that’s it, for now. Until next year, when I plan to return for a full week!