Our coverage of the 2011 South By Southwest film festival continues. As always, your correspondents are:
DM – Dominick Mayer
CO – Chris Osterndorf
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is probably the best thing I’ve seen at SXSW so far. Funny, poignant, and revealing, this movie is part concert film and part chronicle of O’Brien’s creative process. It follows O’Brien on the massive tour he launched following his messy exit from NBC, as well as taking a look at him at home with his family and at work with his staff.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat anything; rather than paint O’Brien as a Christ-like martyr, it depicts him in the rawest light, showing all the anger, pain, and frustration he experienced post Tonight Show. Besides being utterly hilarious, he’s also shown to be insecure, and prone to occasionally taking things out on his staff. In an early moment in the film, O’Brien explains that the darker he feels, the darker his jokes tend to get, and the more he has a tendency to cross the line giving people around him a hard time. However the film also shows the commitment he has to his staff and vice versa, and how they work not only as a team, but in a larger extent, as a family. And the scenes with O’Brien’s actual wife and kids are also among the movie’s most touching.
The film also puts O’Brien’s ridiculous dedication to his fans on display. In one of the best scenes, a young man actually says that he got “jewed” out of seeing the tour, and after calling him out and making him apologize, O’Brien gets the kid a ticket; almost anyone else would have walked away from in utter disgust.
Other moments in the film show him getting fed up with how much he gives to his followers, but one gets the feeling that what O’Brien really has a problem with is all the posturing he has to do that comes along with show business. But through all of his complaints and neurosis, it’s clear that O’Brien loves what he does. He has a symbiotic relationship with his audience; they need each other. The real moral of the story is all in the title. After seeing this film, it’s hard not to believe that O’Brien is nothing short of the hardest working man in show business. He’s always thinking about what he can do next, and what he can do better. Much like the man himself, there’s never a dull moment with Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. It was completely different than what I expected, and for that, I am extremely grateful. Fans and nonfans of O’Brien alike should see this film, because it’s not just an intimate look at one of America’s most dedicated and infinitely fascinating entertainers, it’s also just a great movie. CO
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
At this point, if you don’t like Morgan Spurlock, it’s probably time to accept that you never will. Even more than Michael Moore, he is the epitome of putting oneself into the story. How appropriate this is in the landscape of documentary is debatable, but that being said, Spurlock is pretty good at what he does. In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (aka POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,) Spurlock explores the world of product placement and ad saturation. The whole thing is very meta, and finds Spurlock exploring advertising while trying to persuade various companies to finance the film in return for gratuitous amounts of product placement.
Once again, Spurlock isn’t exploring anything new; we all know that advertising is everywhere. Instead, Spurlock returns to the approach of dissecting a well-known problem from the inside out. Occasionally, the whole thing feels a little bit too clever and full of itself, and all the winking at the audience gets a little tiresome. But most of the film is very entertaining, and one has to give Spurlock credit for being able to be funny and informative at the same time. CO
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Over time, an entire cult of personality has developed around people who really like to listen to Werner Herzog speak. His slow, deliberate accent, which over time has moved from Teutonic to something else entirely, lends overwhelming gravitas to anything in which he appears. Sometimes he plays this for comedy (The Grand, his recent appearance on The Simpsons), but he’s also used it to great effect in the various nature documentaries he’s made in the past decade. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is more Encounters at the End of the World than Grizzly Man, in that it follows the setting more than the humans involved, but it’s still very much a Herzog film.
Filmed in conjunction with the History Channel, the film shows Herzog and a small crew being allowed to film inside the Chauvet caves in France, the first time that a film crew has been allowed entrance. The rules are strict for preservation: they must use low lights, film for a limited time per day and are only allowed to move on a two-foot-wide walkway. Shot in 3D, the film uses this medium to perfection; the distant depth of field captured is directly reflective of the struggles in trying to capture the beauty of the caves at a distance. And what a beauty it is. The intricate detail of the preserved cave drawings is astounding, and as Herzog meditatively considers, the animals must have taken on the illusion of motion when only low lamplight was used.
The film drags at points, particularly when Herzog takes the camera out of the cave and spends time with the scientists, most of whom aren’t particularly interesting save for one man who quit his career in the circus to study archaeology. There’s also a lot of consideration of how the caves represent the nature of man’s dream state. That said, there are also moments when this quiet poignance is heartachingly beautiful, such as when the group’s tour guide makes them stand in complete silence so they can take in the sound of the silent caves. There’s also an almost comical coda involving nuclear albino alligators, but then, the alligators dream, just like the painters in the cave, or us, or even Herzog. DM
Watching The Future, Miranda July’s second feature-length film, any viewer who listens to Canadian alt-rockers The Weakerthans will be moved to recall a song called “Virtute The Cat Explains Her Departure.” In it, a dejected cat narrates the sad tale of its flight from its home. By contrast, Paw Paw (July, in devastating voiceover) wants nothing more than to go home. A stray cat, left alone in an animal shelter waiting for Sophie (July again) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) to pick her up, Paw Paw continually addresses the audience, telling of the terrors of the outside and a darkness of which she refuses to speak. This is just one of many abstractions in The Future, and yet this is not simply a bizarre think piece. It’s clear that this film began as a bit of performance art, but it translates flawlessly, into a work of overwhelming emotional resonance. If you are willing to put the effort into understanding exactly what’s going on, there is a chance that this may be one of the best films that you see this year.
Sophie and Jason, faced with the prospect of owning a pet (and getting married, and having a family, and having nothing left for them over the age of 40…), decide to completely disconnect from their lives for the one month leading up to Paw Paw’s adoption. They cancel their internet account, and both set out to do something. If this sounds vague, it’s by design; July is aiming at a lot with this movie, but one of the more significant themes is the struggle to accomplish, and the panic that accompanies not doing so, and how that panic can often stunt the desire to do anything besides lay in bed for days at a time. While Sophie sets out to make a series of YouTube dance videos, Jason decides to take his cues from everything around him, leading to him signing up to doorknock for an anti-global warming organization. The two begin to engage with random people around them, leading to even further strife, until a moment of dimension-shattering desperation ensues that completely rewrites the fabric of their lives and forces them to question if anything will ever be ‘okay’ again.
This is the sort of film that moves you without your comprehension, and like Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, it’s one that’s meant to be felt, more than understood. In a lot of ways it’s also a more comprehensible film than some might expect. July isn’t speaking in abstractions simply to confuse, but to consider ideas that wouldn’t work in a typical linear narrative, especially since a lot of what she’s saying here has been said time and time again with far less eloquence. In particular, the final shot of the film, which stretches over its end and into the credits, is brutally hopeless, an assault on the ideas of what domestic contentment can and should be. More simply put, The Future is absolutely stunning. DM
After premiering at Sundance over a year ago, Spencer Susser’s Hesher had a lot to live up to at SXSW, despite having already been picked up and receiving fairly good buzz when audiences first saw it. In the film, a young boy named T.J. (newcomer Devin Brochu,)and his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson,) are consumed by the loss of T.J.’s mother and Paul’s wife. While him and his dad are living at the house of his Grandmother (Piper Laurie,) T.J. ends up running into Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt,) a freakish metal-head who latches on to T.J. and moves in with his family. T.J. befriends a local store clerk named Nicole too (Natalie Portman,) who also can’t seem to get her life together.
The whole movie is a strange affair; it’s not quite a dark comedy like Super, another SXSW hit with Rainn Wilson, but it’s not an out and out drama either. Hesher has an oddball sense of humor, and there are moments in it that are very funny. Yet most of the film is subtle, and rather restrained. Somehow, despite it’s lack of genre specificity, Hesher stays consistent in tone, and works due to great performances from the entire cast. J.G.L. particularly shines, in a role that’s unlike anything else we’ve seen from him before. For some reason, like quite a few other films at this festival, it becomes pretty heavy-handed at the end, yet overall, Hesher is still a very good movie. When it will be released is still an open question, but over a year since it first premiered, I can honestly say that it was worth the wait.
(Note: The cut of the film screened was noted as a “work in progress.” However, director Paul Feig told the audience beforehand that except for some technical adjustments, this was the finished version that will be released in theaters in May.)
Most romantic comedies tend to ignore their fact that, in many cases, the protagonist is responsible for most of their tragic lot in life. This isn’t necessarily gendered, though the genre does tend toward female protagonists. A lot of these films feature sad sacks who need nothing more than the validation of the opposite (sometimes same) sex to be complete, and in the process missing the fact that they’re deeply uninteresting shells of humanity. By contrast, Annie (Kristin Wiig) in Bridesmaids is far too human. Her life is on the verge of full collapse, but rather than improve, Annie is content to enjoy her booty call relationship with an obnoxious playboy (an extended cameo I won’t spoil here) and lament the death of the bakery she opened.
With this in mind, it was probably doomed from the start for Lillian (Maya Rudolph) to pick Annie as her maid of honor, given that the very notion of a wedding is, to Annie, a constant reminder of her failures. This angry narcissism forms the core of Paul Feig’s wonderful comedy, a film that rarely pauses to cease being hilarious but still manages to tap into some genuine emotion that isn’t played out on film very often. This is in part because of a uniformly talented cast, one which doesn’t rely on gimmicks (there’s a refreshing dearth of easy Apatow crew/SNL alumni cameos here), and because Feig understands that the key to an all-female cast is to not obnoxiously draw attention to how everybody onscreen is a woman, or cater jokes to an imagined female audience. This is a bawdy, foulmouthed comedy, and it easily stands up with some of the best of the new comedy boom in the past decade.
Wiig, in her first major chance to lead a cast, is perfect as Annie. She finds the right note of bitterness but doesn’t overplay it to the point of turning the audience to antipathy. This is a perfect role for her, and part of that might be due to her co-credit on the screenplay. Much of the supporting cast also avoids cliché; Rose Byrne gets the thankless role of the conniving “new best friend” but runs away with it, and Melissa McCarthy gets a barrelfull of fantastic one-liners as the soon-to-be sister-in-law. Bridesmaids must have been a hard sell, because it features a cast of women without being a womens’ picture, but it’s wonderfully sweet and hilariously crass all at once, and with a little luck could well change the comedy game like another film from a few years ago with an unlikely cast of comics, The 40 Year Old Virgin. Here’s hoping. DM
For anyone who ever said that the films Judd Apatow’s produced/wrote/directed are too “male-centric,” enter Bridesmaids. Directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, and co-written by SNL’s Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids takes a lot of the conventions of the usual Apatow movie and transfers them over to a female cast. It’s dirty, crass, and completely hilarious, and proves definitively that modern comedy is far from a boys’ club. The film has an excellent ensemble, but Wiig in particular shines, showing that she can carry a movie as well as any other SNL heavyweight, male or female. There’s a sense in which it maybe doesn’t represent the average American woman, but its characters are a far cry from the women in most American comedies. For its over the top, crazy, all-in approach to a “girl movie,” Bridesmaids is nothing short of brilliant. CO