Ranking the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Fest, Part 2
There were times over the past couple of days when I wished I still had food poisoning.
My gastrointestinal misadventures, and five good movies, are described in Part 1 of my series on South by Southwest Film. I’ve gotten better, I just wish I could say the same for the flicks I saw. Oh, there are some good ones on this list, and hopefully more to come before the festival ends on Saturday. But for the first time during SXSW 2016 I walked away from screenings disappointed.
Let’s hear the bad news first as we rank our second set of films.
6. Carnage Park
I once heard a film programmer say that festivals have been turning down wanna-be Tarantinos every year since Pulp Fiction. This year the SXSW programmers let one through. Carnage Park isn’t shy about its debt to QT; it follows his cue on music with a collection of midcentury Americana hits and obscurities, it shares his love of slo-mo and freeze frame introductions, and it aspires to his now-familiar goulash of Grindhouse, Gangster, Spaghetti Western, and ’70s-vogue influences. What it fails to clone, or to arrive at on its own, is wit, style, or the ability to touch social nerves. It’s also not nearly as violent as it would need to be to work as a horror. The actors, especially star Ashley Bell, do compelling work with the limited material. Yet they effectively disappear during the climax, which has half the atmosphere of a roadside haunted house attraction, and less craftsmanship.
5. In a Valley of Violence
Another dust-and-blood movie, In a Valley of Violence, fails for some of the same reasons as Carnage Park. It is a Western, or what director Ti West seems to think a Western is — cowboys, horses, ghost towns, women in frilly dresses who work in hotels. But its homages to Western conventions (including Spaghetti Western conventions like a minimalist title sequence) are purposeless, merely referential, like bad sketch comedy. Speaking of comedy, In a Valley of Violence is one, if comedy means repeatedly calling an overweight character “Tubby” and telling female characters to “shut up” in anticipation of laughs. The barbs are blunt and misdirected, and the plotting is excruciatingly obvious. We know what’s going to happen, but getting from one point to the next takes dog’s years. A dog, incidentally, is why In a Valley of Violence is more watchable than Carnage Park; there’s a very cute one, maybe a Blue Heeler, extremely well-trained – though the obviousness of the training does distract from the film’s period and place. Why Ethan Hawke and John Travolta signed on for this clunky, derivative project is a mystery. Karen Gillan and Taissa Farmiga also star, and are also too good for the material.
That was the bad. Before we get to the good, there’s an oddball that must stand alone.
4. Careers in Organized Crime (feature-length 360-degree movie)
Careers in Organized Crime is a low-budget work, and I’m not going to critique its technique or its script, because they’re beside the point. (I will say that I laughed more than I did in Valley of Violence, and at the moments I was supposed to!) This is, to the best of the filmmakers’ knowledge, the world’s first feature-length 360-degree movie, and that alone makes it a landmark. It did not air as part of South by Southwest Film, but appeared in the festival’s new VR/AR track. (That’s Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, for those not hip to the vernacular.) I sat in a swivel chair with a Samsung Gear VR helmet and watched most of director Alex Oshmyansky’s hour-and-a-half mockumentary in which a film crew makes a recruitment video for the Russian mafia. The cuts are like the cuts in any movie, moving you from one scene to the next, but within each scene the camera remains fixed at your position and you can look around freely in any direction. You cannot move forward, backward, or side to side as you might in an interactive VR program, but future VR movies will surely include that option. I enjoyed turning my attention to props that were not commented upon or used by characters, things that in a 2D movie would have gone unnoticed. However, the props and people closest to the camera tended to look unnaturally large; at one point I was next to what appeared to be a car-sized computer monitor. Those are issues that future innovators, perhaps Oshmyansky himself, will find a way to address as they refine this new art form. You don’t need to rush out and see Careers in Organized Crime, its value is mostly that of a technical experiment, but for those of us who are following the evolution of VR storytelling, it is a title worth remembering. Oshmyansky’s team filmed a 2D version of this film simultaneously, which will allow for instructive comparisons.
Now, at last, the best of my mid-festival viewing schedule!
3. The Slippers
How did the ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz get from Judy Garland’s feet to a box in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, where millions of people a year see them? And since she wore different ones for different shots, what happened to the other pairs that were made for the 1939 classic? The answer is a surprisingly complicated story that features some of Hollywood’s nastiest bad guys (like Kirk Kerkorian, a real estate developer who broke up several invaluable studio backlots, and Michael Shaw, a collector who made a young blind girl cry) as well as some of its heroes (like actress Debbie Reynolds, who saved countless famous costumes in a failed bid to open a museum, and Kent Warner, the “Robin Hood” of Hollywood costumes.) This is a story of thievery, conspiracy, hoarding, mystery, greed, and a segment of society that just really, really loves The Wizard of Oz. The Slippers is overlong, it could stand some trimming at the front and the back, but you shouldn’t miss it if you’re a fan of classic Hollywood, collecting, The Wizard of Oz, or documentaries that aren’t afraid to take stances on its subjects.
2. American Fable
The dialogue is on the nose and the emotions are very strongly expressed, but what use does a fable have for subtlety? American Fable is a morality tale, a case of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and blood versus friendship. It takes place in the American Midwest in the 1980s when a wave of foreclosures dramatically reduced the number of farm households. The official SXSW plot summary gives away too much, but it’s hard to avoid, so read on at your own risk. A big city banker type (played by The West Wing’s Richard Schiff) is taken prisoner by radical activists. Held for months in a silo, he befriends a young farmer’s daughter named Gitty (Peyton Kennedy). Gitty has to follow her own compass, charting a course between her new friend and her increasingly fractured family and community. Meanwhile, she is haunted by a devilish figure on horseback in dreamy landscape sequences reminiscent of Terrence Malick. And not for nothing: director Anne Hamilton’s first movie credit was as an intern on The Tree of Life.
1. Black Mountain Poets
Imagine a Christopher Guest movie set in the mossy hills of Wales, and you’ve got a very good idea of what Black Mountain Poets is like. Much of its dialogue was improvised based on director Jamie Adams’ story, and his actors exhibit very clear understandings of their characters and motives. The jumping-off point for the story is a case of impersonation: two petty thieves (Alice Lowe and Dolly Wells) pose as a pair of locally-famous poet sisters at a writing retreat. The rest of the poets have varying levels of skill and are more concerned with who’ll be sleeping with whom after they set up their tents. They care a lot about poetry, too, though, so between their amusing bickering and nerdy wooing they work hard to win a cash prize for best new poem. The not-so-literary impersonators get just as invested in the contest and contestants as anyone else, and bit by bit so do we. The movie has a lot to say about honesty and relationships, but it’s never preachy and never hits you over the head with a message. Instead, it makes you laugh and makes you care through smart, well-edited vignettes. The visuals are a bonus: the rainy Welsh countryside looks like a place I’d want to hike, and I’m not much of a hiker.
Merging this mixed bag of movies with Part 1 of my rankings gives us a new Flickchart 11 for South by Southwest 2016:
1. Black Mountain Poets
3. Hit it Hard
4. American Fable
5. Karaoke Crazies
7. The Slippers
8. The Bandit
9. Careers in Organized Crime (feature-length 360-degree movie)
10. In a Valley of Violence
11. Carnage Park
Check back soon for Part 3!