SXSW Film: Day One


Below you’ll find HEAVEmedia’s continued coverage of SXFilm in Austin, TX. All reviews written by:

DM – Dominick Mayer
CO -Chris Osterndorf

In A Better World (Haevnan)

It’s curious to see a film like Suzanne Bier’s In A Better World pick up the Best Foreign Film honor at this year’s Oscars, because typically that category rewards the most easily accessible film of the five nodded upon. World isn’t necessarily a great film, but it’s definitely a thematically dense one, packing a lot of ideas into a relatively short (a hair under 2 hours) space. This is also the film’s biggest weakness; at times it’s reminiscent of Babel (never a great comparison point) in that it introduces a number of stories (two wounded young boys connecting, a father’s struggles to protect the African camp he’s working as a medic in, a divorced couple) and then leaves the audience to connect the threads by merely suggesting parallels. That said, this device is far more effective than it was in that film, even if portions feel like a stretch.

In particular, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) gets shorted; he delivers a stellar performance as a medic in a small village tortured by a shadowy figure known as the Big Man, who tortures pregnant woman and keeps the town gripped in fear. This story, however, feels atonal with the rest of the movie, and suggests the urge to reach for an added poignance through topicality. His son, Elias (Markus Rygaard) is a precious boy, and also an impressionable one, looking for anybody who can step up and protect him from bullies. So, when Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), an angry young man fresh off the prolonged death of his mother, appears and defends Elias, the two bond, with increasingly hazardous results. This isn’t even scratching the surface of the narrative, which also involves Elias’ mother, Christian’s father and an entire village of natives in Anton’s keep.

There’s a lot of exploration of the ideas of forgiveness and the strength of nonviolence, but far too much reliance on the plight and suffering of the children in order to advance the adults’ narrative. That said, Rygaard and Nielsen deliver incredible performances; there’s none of the usual trappings of child acting, but rather genuine depth. The same cannot fully be said for Anders Thomas Jensen’s screenplay, which relies far too heavily on a series of Profound Moments of escalating severity to generate dramatic resonance. World is a compendium of interesting ideas, but one can’t help but feel that this is the cinematic equivalent of that college student who seduces freshman philosophy majors by espousing a lot of ideas about world politics and humanistic thought without having any real conviction or abiding reason behind it. DM

Source Code

With Source Code, Moon director and David Bowie’s spawn Duncan Jones has proved that he is indeed a very good director. Ben Ripley’s script about a soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has to relive the same eight minutes over and over to prevent a terrorist attack draws on everything from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train to Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. His sophomore film is not nearly as pensive as his debut, but Jones is working with similar themes, i.e. physical reality vs. metaphysical reality. And it’s a really sold action movie, at times even approaching Hurt Locker-esque heights of tension.

The film’s finale unfortunately feels both a bit convoluted and heavy-handed, and it’s also rather easy to see coming. And occasionally some of the film’s visual effects fail to measure up, if only by a little bit. But overall, Source Code is quite good, and even in it’s flawed moments, the movie is beautifully shot by Mr. Jones. It indicates that there may be a time where we’re able think of this guy without connecting him to a certain British rock star. CO

Sound Of My Voice

Sound of My Voice is a film that greatly benefits from knowing absolutely nothing about it (most notably in its unnerving opening scene), so this review will be vague. Suffice it to say that, over 90 minutes, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) see their lives unraveled by a force far beyond their means. The difficult truth at the film’s center is that this is fully their responsibility, but then, was it? They find themselves in a basement, subjected to a series of unspeakable tasks that increase in their gravity, and yet it is by choice. In a sense, anyway; more than anything, Sound is a film about the power of past experience, of how this is often buried and how the unearthing of it can completely change the course of a life.

There is a little girl, as well as some cryptic Lego statues and foot injections, but then, this is one of numerous mysteries which the film does not fully explain. If anything, the moment when the film starts to collapse under its own weight is the third act, which introduces a series of plot Macguffins that may or may not hold the key to the truth. The film is at its best when truth is not only subjective, but completely beside the point. There is only one truth, and as Maggie (Brit Marling) says, it resides in the sound of her voice. It also resides in the minds of broken people, people who need, and maybe even want, to believe. That truth may be granted to the audience, or not at all. Searching for reason over faith might just be the first and most essential mistake. DM

Little Deaths

Little Deaths is what one should expect when they go to shock cinema: Offensive, disturbing, and occasionally perversely funny. The film is an anthology, comprised of three short pieces. The first, entitled House and Home, explores the practices of a married couple who are fairly normal except for in the sexual perversions they enjoy engaging in together with strangers. There is a sense in which of all three, it’s probably the hardest to watch in terms of what you actually see, however the end comes out of nowhere, and in it’s unexpected nature, it’s also rather amusing. The second film, Mutant Tool, is about a woman who is taking pills made from a trapped man’s… well, it’s sort of in the title. This is really the weakest of the films, and (at least in my opinion) the most disturbing as well. It’s clear where the humor was supposed to come from, but the whole thing was just felt utterly slow and didn’t posses any of the irony of the other two films.

The third and final film in Little Deaths is called Bitch, and although you see less actually happening on screen, it’s not less troubling in concept. It tells the story of a couple engaged in a sadomasochistic relationship (the fact that Mutant Tool strayed away somewhat from the territory of strange couples is also one of its major flaws) with a particularly odd twist. The sequence leading up the finale is way too long and terribly scored, but overall, if you can handle it, it’s pretty satisfying. As a whole, the biggest problem with Little Deaths is that it just looks awful, with production values as bad or worse than your typical film school effort (actually film students sometimes have better production values than this). The bigger question at the center of Little Deaths is one of misogynistic attitudes towards women, and how, if ever, they can be appropriately handled onscreen. Unfortunately, that’s not something we have time to explore here. CO

Last year, SXFantastic (the festival’s arm for genre film mecca Fantastic Fest) showed A Serbian Film. Already living in internet infamy, that film depicted sexuality that not even the word aberrant could describe, in order to service a murky point about the nature of sex and its role in being engaged in, being watched and all higher meta levels of sexual congress and voyeurism. Even if it doesn’t justify the horrors it subjects the audience to, there was purpose in mind. By contrast, trash like Little Deaths serves next to no cinematic purpose, as it lacks both the wild-eyed passion and the apocalyptic humor of great shock cinema.

An anthology of three short (not enough so) horror pieces, Deaths is like an immersion in the darkest face of man, a cesspool of misogyny and cheap, smug sadism. The unfortunate thing about this is that the premises themselves are interesting. A couple hires a homeless girl to come home for dinner so they might humiliate her and live out their most perverse religious-sexual fantasies in House and Home. In Mutant Tool, a woman joins a medical research project in an effort to get off drugs. And finally, in the crassest of the films, titled Bitch, a man subjects his cruel girlfriend to unspeakable tortures by exploiting her greatest fear. Of these, the first film fares the best; until it settles for a series of displays of bodily fluid that appear to be an intended substitute for actual horror filmmaking, it makes a potent statement about the nature of white guilt. The film goes downhill from there, with Bitch a jaw-dropping example of the kind of “punish that bitch!” amorality that plagues so much genre cinema. Little Deaths is a sobering, depressing experience, the kind that sends you home from the theater forced to manually rekindle your desire to watch movies. DM

Tomorrow: The man who became Elmo, high-stakes football amongst friends and Rainn Wilson telling crime to shut up.