Culture

SXSW Film 2012: Saturday

the comedy

For our Saturday coverage of this year’s SXFilm, your critics are:

AD – Amy Dittmeier
DM – Dominick Mayer
CO – Chris Osterndorf

The Impostor

The Imposter is one of those investigative documentaries that’s purposefully maddening, intentionally leaving it up to the viewer to decide what is true and what is not. This tale of a 23-year-old Frenchman who impersonated a missing 16-year-old boy from Texas is indeed an incredible story, if not also an incredibly frustrating one. Although it’s told from two very different perspectives, it’s hard to identify a real protagonist in the film. You don’t really root for the titular figure, Frédéric Bourdin, nor do you completely identify with any of the family members of the child in question. In fact, the most fascinating “character” is a private investigator named Charlie Parker, a man so entertaining and interesting it feels as if he’s straight out of a Coen brothers movie.

The problem with The Imposter, though, isn’t that it employs a meandering perspective. The thing that’s really bothersome about the movie is that director Burt Layton seems to dangle a possible answer to the whole thing in front of you, only to pull it away by the end. Nevertheless, The Imposter is filled with so many twists and turns it’s almost impossible not to be engrossed by this sad, strange story. CO

Bijuka

Set in rural India, Bijuka (meaning “scarecrow”) follows the true story of Lalli (Arti Rautela), who enters into an arranged marriage that quickly turns sour. The film addresses a huge problem in Indian culture, where women in rural areas are sometimes viewed as property and are subjected to physical and sexual abuse, with little to no repercussions brought against the perpetrators because of the largely patriarchal justice system. It’s a serious issue in the community, one that should be addressed more in Indian films. But the package Bijuka wraps around this social problem doesn’t make the huge impact it should. The film is made up of many long shots with little music, following Lalli around her new home and showing her strained and cold relationship with her husband Paiku (Amit Purohit). This shows how menial Lalli’s life has become as a newlywed, but long shot by long shot it starts to lose its aesthetic effect.

The film is also riddled with technical issues, such as awkward sound edits and subtitling errors. There are points in the film that could pack an emotional punch, such as when Lalli expresses her grief to her mother about not being able to satisfy her husband, that are lost because the subtitles pass by too quickly, are misspelled or don’t even appear at all. Things like this ultimately take you out of Bijuka‘s message, and when the film’s powerful ending hits it doesn’t pack the punch it should. It’s great that the South Asian community is willing to start making films that address hard-hitting social problems, but a weak technical backbone will always lower the effect it could have. AD

Nature Calls

Honest dark comedy requires a certain level of commitment, a willingness to go to sometimes brutal places for a tentative laugh. On a spare few occasions, Nature Calls gets there, but too frequently it’s undercut by ill-advised attempts at sincerity and a total lack of tonal awareness throughout. When Randy (Patton Oswalt), an obsessive Eagle Scout determined to uphold the family scouting tradition, realizes that his troop is on the verge of ditching him, he takes them on an unauthorized excursion into the woods to show them the value of camping. It goes to hell, of course, compounded by Randy’s obnoxious brother (Johnny Knoxville) bringing Rob Riggle and the late Patrice O’Neal (the absolute highlights of the movie) along to hunt them down. Todd Rohal, whose The Catechism Cataclysm was way better structured than this, doesn’t quite know if he wants the film to be about Randy’s earnest attempts to teach the boys manhood, or about an escalating series of semi-unhinged sight gags. So, he splits the difference and has Darrell Hammond playing a creepy park ranger who might be gay. DM

WONDER WOMEN! The Untold Story of American Superheroines

Wonder Women! brings up some fascinating points about female figures in Hollywood – there are none. But why? Figures from feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem to Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna discuss the evolution and repression of the American superheroine in this documentary, closely following the history of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman. As a comic book fan, I’ve never been interested in Wonder Woman. In the infancy of my comic book obsession I found her storylines to be boring and unrelatable to the burgeoning tomboy I was becoming. Thanks to Wonder Women!, I’m now a fan of Wonder Woman.

The doc illuminates her strong feminist origins and empowering story arcs, and how organizations like the Comics Code Authority pushed her and other superheroines down to submissive B-characters. Obsessive fans are the ones that are bringing Wonder Woman back to her roots, and the documentary speaks with people like Andy Mangels, the founder of Women of Wonder Day, to show that even though there’s a lack of women in heroic roles, there are people out there who want to fight back. The film goes further to explore other strong female figures in the media, such as Buffy, Xena, and Ripley from Alien,and shows how even now women are still getting the brunt of dippy heroic roles. Teenage girls are growing up with few women in the media to look up to, and the ones that are out there, which one interviewee points out, rely on self-sacrifice to control themselves when their power gets out of hand.

However, this is not one of those “Men are evil, girl power!” documentaries. Director Kristy Guevara-Flanagan adds humor and wit to a topic that could easily become the aforementioned film, and instead focuses on the journey of Wonder Woman as someone young women should follow and aspire to be. It’s a “Women rock” movie that can reach a broader audience, and for that I thank Guevara-Flanagan. There need to be more movie about gender inequalities like this. AD

Safety Not Guaranteed

“Indie Sci-Fi.” Ugh. What a disgusting term. Considering independent film’s long, rich and muddled history, it almost seems stupid to label any movie as an “indie” at this point. And yet, I just saw Safety Not Guaranteed, and here we are. Make no mistake, despite being a film about time travel, this is as indie as movies get. You’ve got your hand-held camera, your long shots out of car windows, your softly sad music. And yet, Safety Not Guaranteed isn’t your average indie movie, or your average sci-fi movie, for that matter. When other films use the above mentioned indie tropes, it usually feels like they’re doing it because the filmmakers said, “Hey, lets make an indie movie. This is how you do it, right?” But with Safety, it all feels earned. It fact, it is this movie’s disarming earnestness that makes it good. And more than just good, for that matter. Safety Not Guaranteed is a little bit fantastic.

Although it may be destined to go down in history as the “indie time travel movie,” there’s almost not a description I can write here that will do the film justice. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the fantastic performances. Supporting players Jake Johnson and newcomer Karan Soni are equally touching and funny in their respective roles, and Aubrey Plaza proves she can carry a film, even if she does it in her familiar, sullen style. Perhaps more than anybody, Mark Duplass stands out here, as a nutty Doc Brown surrogate. For a guy who usually plays a sort of “regular dude” character, Duplass kills it in this movie as an aspiring time-traveler. His ability to move easily between ridiculousness and devastation in this movie is (forgive me for saying this) award-worthy.

A perfect film this is not, but you forgive its flaws because the pure, unbridled honesty of the story shines through. Because Safety Not Guaranteed believes in everything it throws at us, we believe in all of it too. Even in time travel. CO

The Comedy

It’s fairly easy to understand why The Comedy inspired indignant audience attacks and walkouts at Sundance. Yes, the movie stars Tim Heidecker of Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job! fame, and yes, Eric Wareheim appears in a small role. However, other than the presence of these two actors who happened to be in another, different thing together, no relation. The Comedy follows Swanson (Heidecker), a Brooklyn trust fund hipster in his mid-30s who drifts through his life as a passive observer, starting shit with people around him in an attempt to either move the world or be moved by it. It’s a tough watch primarily because Swanson doesn’t really accomplish either of these goals. Mostly, he gets drunk with his friends and engages in aggressive games of sarcastic insincerity in a bizarre simulacrum of human interaction.

The Comedy is beyond laconic in pace, chronicling the infinite slacking ways of a guy whose attempts at humor come laced with perpetual venom. Heidecker is subtly excellent, drawing Swanson’s contempt for his world out of every exaggerated sigh, eye roll and bored, idiotic gesture. As Swanson begins putting himself in genuine danger just to be pushed in any direction by anything at all, he earns a small amount of empathy for a guy who isn’t contemptible so much as totally unremarkable. There isn’t really a narrative pull, given the movie is a pure exercise in rich kid ennui and what happens when that reaches middle age, but for as bizarre and sometimes interminable as The Comedy is, I couldn’t look away for a second. DM

Sinister

SXSW’s “super secret” screening this year, which ended up not even remotely being a secret, was Sinister, a horror film starring Ethan Hawke and written by longstanding Ain’t It Cool News scribe C. Robert Cargill, a.k.a. Massawyrm. It’s a dramatic departure from last year’s secret screening, Another Earth, and in my opinion a refreshing one. The fact that they played it at midnight too, rather than in the afternoon, made the fact that it was a horror film seem particularly appropriate.

Watching Sinister, I was frequently reminded of last year’s Insidious, another quality horror movie that played at SXSW. Like Insidious, Sinister is a throwback to a more traditional kind of horror. Although it may fall into the PG-13 range, it is legitimately frightening, without resorting to the extremes of shock cinema or torture porn. To be sure, there are hokey moments, but the concept (which I won’t ruin here) is clever enough, and the scares are basically well paced and effective. Admittedly, it has a few hokey moments, but that comes with the territory. This film won’t revolutionize horror movies, but it should appease the genre’s fans. CO