Culture

SXSW Film: Day Six

Candids: September 28, 2009

DM – Dominick Mayer
CO – Chris Osterndorf

96 Minutes

96 Minutes will go down as the best Paul Haggis screenplay of 2011. Astoundingly heavy-handed, the film is like Crash for people who found that one too subtle. This is one of those “everything is connected!” narratives through which the audience is assumed to reach a higher understanding of tolerance, because the Other is really just like Carley (Brittany Snow), the nice college-aged white girl whose biggest troubles are that her dad won’t come to her graduation. Like so many of these movies, this is juxtaposed with the life of Dre (Evan Ross), a young man living in the ghetto who’s torn between his academic success and his gangbanger family. This hasn’t even touched on how the film ties together a girl being cheated on or a boy abused by his mother in order to reach a cathartic climax of brutality that’s teased from the first scene just to generate tension that this film in a linear narrative would not have even come close to reaching. Then, there’s a scene involving Carley and Dre that’s almost comical and kind of condescending in its by-the-numbers love/hate dialogue. 96 Minutes has isolated moments of beauty, surrounded by so much backhanding that even Alan Ball would have to come out and say “Come on, guys.” DM

Attack The Block

Now this is the shot in the arm audiences have needed, even if they’ve yet to realize it. Attack The Block is a deliriously fun, wildly thrilling aliens vs. kids flick that plays like The Goonies crossbred with The Evil Dead and a slew of alien invasion films. Most of the film takes place in a single ominous apartment block in South London. After Moses (John Boyega) and his gang finish mugging Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse, they witness an alien creature as it crashes into a nearby car. They chase and kill it, not knowing that this will ignite one of the worst nights of their lives, for soon a host of gigantic black dog-like creatures with fluorescent blue teeth are hunting down the boys to reclaim one of their own. The film pulls off the delicate balance of genuine scares (the jump scares are telegraphed, but director Joe Cornish plays them so well that it doesn’t matter) and laughs. As they add to their militia, they eventually reach a pact with Sam, as well as Roy (Nick Frost) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway), a pair of charming stoners who offer safe haven.

There’s not a single scene in this movie that drags, and this is due not only to Cornish’s tight direction and stellar screenplay, but also to a uniformly great cast which sells a mixture of world-weary resolve and genuine fear. Boyega, in particular, is great as the conflicted Moses. His principles seem to be at odds with one another; he tells Sam at one point that “If we’d known you were from the Block, we’d never have robbed you.” Like many great sci-fi movies, there’s a lot more going on in Block than just creative bursts of violence and laughs (though it’s awash In both). The film captures the dingy tension and danger of an insular environment filled with those abandoned by society, who feel that help is a lost cause and that survival is the only game in town. This is not to say that the film is ponderous about race relations by any stretch, but that Attack The Block is a truly great movie no matter which angle you choose to approach it from. DM

The Beaver

Hype is a funny thing. Although we can tell ourselves all day long that it doesn’t influence the way we perceive entertainment, the fact of the matter is that if you’re told a movie is the best thing ever all day long, chances are it’ll be hard for it to live up to your expectations. Conversely, it’s possible to enjoy a movie more when people have insisted to you over and over again that it’s terrible if you come in with low expectations. With more hype surrounding it than any other film at SXSW, yesterday finally saw the arrival of The Beaver.

By now we all know the premise. Man is depressed, starts using beaver puppet to turn his life around, until beaver begins to control and take him over. We’re also all familiar with the movie’s long road to the screen, from Kyle Killen’s Black List topping script to the film’s continually delayed release date in the face of Mel Gibson’s increasingly unhinged behavior. As for Killen’s writing, although he’s not necessarily the second coming, his script is indeed smart, touching, and well crafted. His characterization is very good, and he balances tones in a way most writers couldn’t. Is his screenplay truly a masterpiece of Charlie Kaufman-esque proportions? No. And as movies like Seven Pounds prove, an appearance on the Black List doesn’t necessarily translate to a great film. But overall, it’s undoubtedly a unique story, and one that not every writer would have handled as well.

Gibson is great too. Although the ridiculous notion some insiders had of him getting an Oscar nomination for this film were dashed the moment those infamous recordings surfaced, this is probably the best thing he’s done acting wise in a long, long time. Playing the man at the center of the film, Walter Black, Gibson does a fine job of conveying depression and desperation, but where his real skill lies is in establishing the Beaver as a fully realized character of his own. As the domineering puppet grows stronger and stronger, Walter grows weaker and weaker, and Gibson is excellent at making the Beaver charismatic and sinister all at once, while at the same time never forgetting that it’s Walter underneath him.

The rest of the cast is also very good. What most people probably don’t know about the film is that its second lead is Anton Yelchin, as Walter’s son Porter, a high school kid who is grappling with his own dark side. Yelchin gives another very good performance here as the intelligent yet disheartened Porter, playing off Jennifer Lawrence in the role of his love interest. Jodie Foster’s performance, as Walter’s wife Meredith, is also the best work she’s done in years.

However, Foster’s directing, while consistent, and respectful of the subject matter, leaves something to be desired. One gets the feeling that in the hands of a real maverick filmmaker, someone who might have approached it in a less-traditional, non-Hollywood way, that The Beaver could’ve really been something special.

But as it is, The Beaver is still quite a good movie. It’s akin to something like Up in the Air in its application of time’s big, existential questions to the life of the modern man. The climax is absolutely fantastic, although afterwards the movie struggles to arrive at a satisfying ending. The best thing to do before you see this film is attempt, hard as it might be, to forget everything you know about The Beaver; all the infamy, all the rumors, and all the hype. After doing that, you can go ahead and enjoy what proves to be a pretty poignant movie. CO

Dragonslayer

Tristan Patterson’s Dragonslayer (recently announced as the winner of the festival’s Documentary Feature competition) is a heartbreaking bit of documentary filmmaking, a disjointed odyssey into the life and mind of Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, a quasi-professional skateboarder whose self-destructive tendencies first lost him his sponsors and later quite a bit more. He has a son, Sid, who he sees sporadically and doesn’t seem to understand, but then, there’s a lot Skreech doesn’t understand. His girlfriend Leslie is a bright young girl whose fatal flaw is that she’s not nearly smart enough to take the full measure of Skreech’s character. He’s a seductive type, one of those free spirits who’s endearingly washed-out to a point and a sad burnout beyond that. Skreech makes numerous attempts to kick-start his life throughout, but like rolling out of bed to smoke pot or skate, this is just a sporadic thing he does without really having any particular endgame in mind. Patterson’s film is a sobering affair, spinning the tale of a man who’s far too blissed out to see that this life has little left for him, and that this is on his head. DM

The Innkeepers

Ti West seems to be having somewhat of an identity crisis. There’s no doubt that he can direct, and that he loves horror cinema. His new film, The Innkeepers, also has a classic score, and his direction is like a more controlled style of early Polanski.

However, in some ways, that’s the problem. For a horror filmmaker, West is way too controlled in general. There are scary moments in The Innkeepers, yet nothing that really makes you jump out of your seat. Even worse, West seems determined to do the exact opposite of the time-honored movie staple, “wow them in the end.” His last film, The House of the Devil, was an amusing little movie, but it made the audience feel like it was building to something big, only to leave them with a predictable twist at the end. The Innkeepers, although it contains some scary moments prior to the final act, doesn’t really kick into overdrive until the finale, and once again leaves the audience cold by the time the credits roll. West of course can’t be faulted for trying to bring a little subtlety to horror filmmaking, but there’s a difference between being subtle and being plain underwhelming.

The worst part is, we want more from West because he’s actually really talented. As a filmmaker, he locks you in stylistically, if only to leave you wanting more at the end. And his writing throughout most of The Innkeepers is nothing short of fantastic. The story centers around two hotel workers, Luke and Claire, trying to make some sort of paranormal contact before the hotel closes down in a few days. Playing Claire is the adorable Sara Paxton, while Pat Healy takes on the role of clever curmudgeon Luke. These two have excellent chemistry together, and the best thing about the whole movie is just watching them interact and listening to West’s dialogue. The hotel setting makes the whole thing feel a bit like Clerks, except for without all the pop culture references.

With all this in mind, one has to wonder whether West really should be making horror movies. His writing and his characters are really good; not horror movie good, in that winking, archetypal, “I’m about to get killed” kind of way, but plain old likeable, believable, straight up good good. There is a sense in which it almost seems like West should be doing comedy, or something where he won’t have to satisfy the audience with the scares required of horror. If West can find away to apply his writing style to a movie that’s actually really scary, he may just become one of the most exciting young horror directors in years. But if not, this talented artist may seriously want to reevaluate what genre he works best in. CO