The 2014 SXSW Movie Capsule Roundup

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The 2014 SXSW Movie Capsule Roundup

For the 10th straight year, Paste descended upon SXSW, and although, as usual, we didn’t see all the films we wanted to, we did see quite a few good ones. Find some of our picks and pans from this year’s crop in the space below, provided by reviewers Tim Basham and David Roark.

10,000KM (Long Distance)

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You wouldn’t expect it since they’re so completely different in terms of style and genre, but Carlos Marques-Marcet’s 10,000KM finds striking similarities to Spike Jonze’s Her. Thematically, both are about the relationship between technology and incarnation. In 10,000KM, a couple struggles to keep their relationship afloat when they are separated—one in Barcelona and the other in Los Angeles—for a year. They try to make it work by communicating online, but the daily video chats—and even their feeble attempts at a virtual sex life—come up short in sustaining their romance. Like Jonez, Marques-Marcet underlines the limitations of technology in relationships, specifically its inability to replace physical intimacy—incarnation. In its sad storyline, brought to life by exceptional acting and a minimalist aesthetic, 10,000KM makes a convincing case for the necessity of bodily presence in human relationships—especially romantic ones. Also, like Her, it resonates because we sympathize with the characters and their longing for this connection. —DR

American Interior

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Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys inserts his unique style into a documentary about the search for his ancestor, the American explorer John Evans, whose maps were later used by Lewis and Clark. The best of the film includes the Welshman’s slide presentations with live performances and various meetings with historians and Native Americans as he travels through Wales and the American West. Those parts greatly help offset the weaker moments of attempted humor through the use of a puppet. —TB

Before I Disappear

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At SXSW and other film festivals, it’s common to see feature-length films that have been adapted from accomplished short films but have no business being feature-length films. These films often run a little over an hour—because they have nothing more to do or say—and merely extend scenes and characters from the source material. It’s an example of a director trying to ride the coattails of past success instead of summoning once again the creativity that inspired him in the first place. Fortunately, that’s not the case for Shawn Christensen’s Before I Disappear, which is based on his Oscar-winning short, Curfew—in this case, there’s actually enough to work with. Christensen uses the same cast—himself and the young actress Fatima Ptacek in the lead roles—and even borrows exact scenes and dialogue from Curfew. Yet, he takes what we wanted more of in Curfew—everything cut on the editing floor—and gives it to us. The result is a dark yet poignant drama about depression and drug addiction captured in both form and content, as Christensen creates a surreal, melancholic tone through lighting and camerawork. —DR

Boyhood

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Richard Linklater is officially on a roll. Shot over the course of 12 years with the same actors, his new film, Boyhood, not only marks a phenomenon in the world of filmmaking, but it also captures growing up—specifically in 21st-century Texas—with poise and sincerity. Boyhood centers on a family of three—a single mother and her daughter and son—as they struggle through jobs, moves, divorces, abuse and a relationship with their estranged father, played by Ethan Hawke. With gorgeous cinematography, sincere performances by Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, and a pertinent soundtrack featuring songs that reflect the various time periods of the story, Linklater creates a cinematic treasure—and it couldn’t find a better home than SXSW. —DR

Chef

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With his latest, Chef, John Favreau seeks to make a small, personal, non-Hollywood film—an independent film. But nearly everything about it is Hollywood, from the story itself and its tidy little ending, to the privileged characters living in mansions throughout L.A. and Miami, to the big-name cast—you don’t put Sofia Vergara in your film for the sake of craft. Yet Favreau instills Chef with just enough heart and personality to make it work. Through a story of reconciliation, between a chef and his conceived career and a father/husband and his family, the big-budget director may not create the work he thinks he did, but whatever you call it, Chef embodies—specifically in the bromance between Favreau and John Leguizamo and enticing cinematography—an undeniable sentiment and charm that places it a cut above the rest. —DR

The Dog

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The true story and history behind Sidney Lumet’s classic Dog Day Afternoon is every bit as intriguing as the film that reenacted the attempted bank robbery. The character that Al Pacino portrayed, John Wojtowicz, is the center and namesake of the documentary The Dog. It follows his life as an early gay rights activist, including how his turbulent relationship with another man led to his incarceration. In a story that’s both funny and tragic there is a surprising number of interesting subplots involving friends and family that came out of the ten years filmmakers Allison Berg and Francois Keraudren spent working on the documentary. —TB

Fort Tilden

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A filmmaker realizes their connection with an audience when they hear “I know that person!” in reference to a film’s character. We quickly recognize Fort Tilden’s Harper (Bridey Elliott) and Allie (Clare McNulty) as clueless twenty-somethings who unrealistically attempt a leisurely bike ride from Brooklyn to the beach, choosing the dream of hooking up with that new, cute guy over the Peace Corps plans and artistic ambitions. Don’t expect any epiphanies from these two. Just enjoy the jolly ride and comic moments of their survival. If Woody Allen could take his dialogue to the world of these self-absorbed millennials, this is what it would sound like. —TB

Frank

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The late comedian Andy Kaufman would probably love Frank and could sympathize with the film’s namesake and center of attraction. But while Kaufman would become a different persona, the aspiring musical eccentric Frank (Michael Fassbender) is exactly who you see, except for the giant head he wears day and night—even while he showers. The young and naïve Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who still lives with his parents, unexpectedly becomes the British band’s keyboardist as they sequester themselves in an isolated country cottage while finding inspiration for an album. It’s wacky. It’s dumb (in a good way). It’s even deep. In one of her best roles, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the mysterious, moody Clara, who battles with Jon over Frank’s attention and over the band’s path to success that includes a trip to SXSW. —TB

The Frontier

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When the father-son relationship works on film you can usually credit it to smart dialogue and strong performances. In The Frontier writer/director Matt Rabinowitz gets one-and-a-half out of two right. His story of the now-grown, rebellious son Tennessee (Coleman Kelly) returning home to visit his dad Sean (Max Gail), a retired college professor, is poignant but light. The two dance around the edges of their differences until a young personal assistant (Anastassia Sendyk) who’s been helping Sean with his memoirs forces them to work it out over a bottle of scotch. Fortunately, when the script lacks depth the actors, primarily the veteran Gail, emotionally fill the momens with silent expression. —TB

The Heart Machine

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You meet a girl online. She’s pretty. She’s nice. You start to fall in love. The only problem is that she lives in Germany. That’s okay. She is moving back to New York soon. Everything will work out. Yet you start to notice something. Little clues make you think something is off. The sirens in the background are not European. Nor are the many other things in her apartment. You fall deeper into doubt. Maybe she lives in New York. Maybe her apartment is just down the street. The truth is unknown. This is the plot of Zachary Wigon’s first feature film, The Heart Machine. Gripping and unnerving, the dramatic thriller hits home because it feels so possible—so real—to a generation that grew up on the World Wide Web. Wigon definitely commits some major missteps as a director, specifically in the area of tone, yet with a strong, sympathetic cast and such a relatable and timely premise, he ultimately triumphs. —DR

Housebound

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Out of New Zealand comes a fresh take on the old “haunted house” tale. After Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is arrested for a hilariously botched ATM machine robbery, the court sentences her to the home she grew up in, with the mother (Rima Te Wiata) she can’t stand. In the face of mom’s perpetual cheeriness O’Reilly’s performance as the ne’er do well daughter is irritatingly wonderful. When she becomes convinced of the house’s hauntings she takes herself and others on a trail filled with misdirection and surprises. In his first feature, writer/director Gerard Johnstone has gathered a cast and story to rival the successful comedies of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. —TB

The Immortalists

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For a movie with such a rich and dense subject matter—immortality and a potential scientific cure that deals with stifling the natural trajectory of human cells—The Immortalists proves relatively dim and superficial. The documentary by directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg follows two scientists—Bill Andrews from the United States and Aubrey de Grey from England—with the same life mission: to live forever or die trying. On the surface, these two characters seem interesting enough. Bill runs ultra marathons, nearly died in a race in years past, and wants to find a cure for personal reasons: His dad is sick, and his best friend has cancer. Don, wielding a giant beard and always with a beer in hand, has different motivations: He just wants to do something good for humanity. They boast big words and big educations, and for a while, they’re fascinating. Whether it’s their personal lack of depth or Danza’s inability to mine it, though, the film never gets underneath these men or the issue at hand. It never explores the metaphysical side of things, staying focused on the physical, the natural—science. It never asks the big worldview questions that matter most. It merely floods the screen with a bunch of hypotheses and numbers instead of, well, humanity. Sure, the data stays intriguing, but it’s nothing you can’t read in 15 minutes on Wikipedia. —DR

Joe

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As mentioned in his introduction at SXSW, David Gordon Green boasts a filmmaking career literally all over the map. He started with the poetic, Malick-esque George Washington—easily his greatest work to date—and later went on to make hilarious, big-budget comedies like Pineapple Express. Green’s latest film, Joe, starring Nicholas Cage and Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life and Mud, marks a subtle return to his roots. Set in a rural Southern town, the story—an adaptation of Larry Brown’s 1991 novel of the same name—focuses on the unlikely relationship between a 15-year-old drifter (Sheridan) and a troubled ex-con (Cage), for whom redemption may exist. The plot bears similarities to Green’s early works, such as Undertow and All the Right Girls, given its dark and gritty context, yet it’s probably not as accomplished. That said, Cage—demanding to be taken seriously once again—and Sheridan together instill the film with enough vitality to make it effecting. —DR

Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty

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One good thing about age: It cuts down on the wear and tear of worrying about saying the right thing. Now that blues guitarist Johnny Winter is 70 years old he does not mince words, like when he’s commenting on Robert Johnson’s recording of “Crossroad Blues”. “Cream did a version of this but it wasn’t as good,” he says smiling. “Not even close.” As so many of our rock heroes and founders reach senior status, there seems to be a sense of urgency to document their lives while they’re still around. Down And Dirty does just that, while providing a veritable education on the blues. The respect for the legally blind legend is shown in interviews with musicians like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. During SXSW, where the film premiered, even Lady Gaga, while on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” walked over to where Johnny was playing with the house band and graced the blues star with a curtsy. —TB

A Night in Old Mexico

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It’s easy to like Robert Duvall—but not his new film. Sure to end up on the Hallmark channel or another outlet with shoddy production values, A Night in Old Mexico is pure cheese—to be more specific, a film without an identity. Is it a Western? Comedy? Drama? Adventure? From start to finish, Duvall’s latest acting vehicle can’t decide what it wants to be. One second, it feels like No Country for Old Men. The next, it feels like Dumb and Dumber. Though Duvall’s turn is honorable enough, it’s impossible to take this film seriously: Red (Duvall), an old drunken cowboy, and his city slicker grandson (Jeremy Irvine) end up south of the border, where they get caught in the middle of a vicious crime and then end up meeting a local stripper (Angie Cepeda), who falls in love with Red. The whole thing is such an uneven mess that you feel bad for Duvall. —DR

Open Windows

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Outside of fanboys and film fest fanatics (is there a difference?) the name Nacho Vigalando will spark little recognition. That may change with his first feature film since 2007’s critically lauded Timecrimes. Starring Elijah Wood as Nick Chambers, supposedly the lucky winner of a date with Hollywood starlet Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey), Open Windows throws the viewer directly into the seat of a high tech, heart-thumping thrill ride as soon as it begins. Through live action and laptop conversations with an unknown, manipulative mastermind, Chambers is forced into an alliance that is all too plausible in our world of Wikileaks and NSA surveillance. It begs the question, “What would I do in that situation?” Wood’s emotional range perfectly complements the story as he periodically turns from hunted to hunter. And Vigalondo’s ambitious attention to detail anchors the process. —TB

Other Months

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The stuff of film festivals—like SXSW—often gets caricatured as artsy-fartsy, pretentious slosh, and it’s because of movies like Other Months that it does. Captured in a trio of vignettes, the film follows a Toby Maguire doppelgänger through three seasons of post-college life and, in the process, epitomizes nearly every stereotype of the indie flick—and in the worst kind of way: The protagonist is an aspiring writer who feels “lost” in the world. Two characters get into a philosophical debate about “chaos.” There’s an awkward masturbation scene (a common thread of SXSW this year, by the way). As the list of indie-isms goes on and on and on, the pretense gets slathered on so heavily that the whole film becomes suffocating. —DR

Space Station 76

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If it didn’t have so much potential, Space Station 76 probably wouldn’t be so disappointing. But it does: future and space as imagined circa 1970s with a cast made up of Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson and Matt Bomer, based on a prestigious play. Yet the whole thing falls flat, mostly because the director never elevates it from theater to cinema. Given the lackluster camerawork and direction, Space Station functions like a mere play with glorified set pieces. Even then, for being rooted in such a regarded stage production, the story and its characters, themselves, prove surprisingly feeble—and unfunny. Sure, the gimmicks of retro mustaches, costumes and robots provide a few good laughs, but when they start to wear off, the film shows itself for what it really is: a letdown. —DR

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