Day three is nigh for Heave’s SXFilm coverage from Austin! Your contributors are:
AD – Amy Dittmeier
DM – Dominick Mayer
CO – Chris Osterndorf
Though billed as a film screening, Renga was instead an entertaining live demonstration of a sustainable feature-length interactive gaming event. Co-creators Adam Russell and John Sear used an HD camera to track laser signals sent from the audience, in order to coordinate a large-scale tower defense game in space. And what lasers, you ask? High-powered laser pointers given to each audience member (about 50 in attendance), who then had to shout at one another for an hour and a half in order to coordinate the defense of their ship and the harvesting of building blocks.
While the full potential of this technology was on display, the Renga demonstration also proved why a crowd left to dictate anything as a collective is an issue: they can’t. The gripes came early and often, as did passive-aggressive potshots at one another. As an experiment of a new format, though, as well as a tease for the possibility of a narrative film in this fashion, Renga is a small triumph. DM
Chess has a very high-class aura around it, something intellectuals and Ivy League grads play in their studies during rainy afternoons in their summer homes. The kids in the documentary Brooklyn Castle make those people look like plebeians. Brooklyn Castle follows a nationally recognized chess team at Brooklyn’s I.S. 318 through their competitive season. These kids, ranging from ages 10 to 15, are some of the best young chess players in the US and have higher rankings than Albert Einstein did in his heyday of play. But they’re not the typical people you would think would play chess: I.S. 318 has over 70% of their kids in low income homes. As you follow these students through the documentary, you see them living in cramped apartments, sharing bunk beds with their younger siblings and playing chess on the floor of their small living room. Brooklyn Castle shows a world of chess unseen by most, and makes it captivating to all.
The students of I.S. 318 are the most endearing part of this documentary. A 90-minute documentary about chess may scare most away, but the connection the audience makes to these children makes the time fly. Regardless of the sport, we all know how it feels like to want something badly at that age, how heartbreaking little problems can be. When the team’s star player Justus (only 10 at the beginning of the film) loses his first match with the team, he becomes visibly upset. And you really feel for the kid. He knows he’s good (he later becomes the youngest black chess master), but one loss sets off his entire match. You feel for this kid, you understand his disappointment and frustration, and later when he wins you also feel his joy. Director Katie Dellamaggiore shoots the team in such a way that you feel this way toward all the main players. When budget cuts threaten the team, you want them to prevail. When Pobo, the team captain, says that without the chess team he’d probably be on the streets, you feel grateful for the programs I.S. 318 fights so hard to keep. Dellamaggiore dispels any preconceived notions about inner city schools and chess in one film, and keeps you entertained the entire time with great animations and compelling stories. AD
Although Keyhole reportedly began as Canadian mad genius Guy Maddin’s attempt to make a “gangsters and ghosts” genre film according to cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke, there was no way that Maddin was ever going to settle for a straightforward crime film narrative. Like the vast majority of Maddin’s work, Keyhole feels closer to a fever dream than a movie, appropriate for a filmmaker whose cinematic mind has always felt filtered through decades of cinema and human memory at once, for any given second. Unfortunately, like some of his lesser work, Keyhole is also an emotionally distant scramble that, while challenging and occasionally engaging, lacks the emotional resonance of his best work.
It doesn’t help that the tale of Ulysses Pick (Jason Patrick, vamping to great effect), a criminal trapped within a home filled with the ghosts of his family and men, recalls Maddin’s stunning My Winnipeg. Both films explore the ideas of the home as the basic ground of all human existence, but where that prior film explored the role of the family within the home, Keyhole is more interested in the demons and degradation of the home itself. There’s some interesting ideas at play here, especially that of the house itself as capable of spinning its own mortifying biography, but none of it comes together in any sort of cohesive fashion. This might be Maddin’s most sexual, excessive film to date, and it’s certainly one of the more disturbing, but aside from the breathlessly gorgeous visuals courtesy of Kasulke, it’s sadly among his more forgettable as well. DM
It’s hard to make setting a character, but director Daniel Nettheim makes the world of The Hunter as interesting as its lead actor Willem Dafoe. Entirely shot in Tasmania, The Hunter follows mercenary hunter Martin (Dafoe) as he searches for the thought-extinct Tasmanian Tiger for a shady biotech company. Martin lays between two parties in Tasmania: the locals, who use the forest he’s hunting in for logging and make their living off it, and the environmentalists (called “greenies”) who seek to protect it. Throughout the film Martin remains neutral, focused on his work, until the family he’s staying with ropes him into the mysterious disappearance of their father. The story may be average, but the setting is incredible. The forests of Tasmania that Martin stalks through are ancient, lush, and completely foreign to American audiences. It’s as alien as the creature he’s hunting, an environment that can only exist in remote locations such as this. The story line revolving the disappearance of the family’s father may be Martin’s driving point later in the film, but it’s the scenes in the forest and the attention to detail Dafoe has for his performance that are the most interesting parts of The Hunter. AD
See Girl Run
I want to like this movie, I really do. Writer/director Nate Meyer’s story about fidelity and regret has a lot going for it. His decision to show the mid-life crisis walkout from the perspective of a woman as opposed to the usual schlubby dude is almost enough to hook me in and of itself. Unfortunately, See Girl Run is an awkward film, plagued by a lack of momentum. The lead character Emmie, played by Robin Tunney, isn’t very likeable, but this isn’t the problem. The problem is that Emmie’s painfully vacillating, and almost impossible to understand. She changes her mind at the drop of a hat, and it’s hard to believe that her perspective is so easily swayed.
Adam Scott, playing Emmie’s old boyfriend Jason, is charming and funny as always, and the film might’ve been better had it given equal time to him. He’s not only more likeable, but more entertaining, and in my opinion more affecting in the scenes he’s in than Tunney, who wasn’t given much to work with. Unfortunately, this isn’t Jason’s movie, and his story is woefully underdeveloped. See Girl Run has an interesting point of view, and Meyer should be commended for his effort. It’s just a shame his ambition didn’t match his output. CO
The Do-Deca Pentathlon
Do-Deca Pantathlon could have easily been a big-budget Hollywood film, a buddy comedy with A-list actors and a popular soundtrack. But Jay and Mark Duplass felt wrong making their project into something like this, and saved the script to self-produce and direct. And I wouldn’t want this film done any other way. Do-Deca is reminiscent of the Duplass’ early work like The Puffy Chair, where the two manage to combine a well-written and hilarious comedy with genuine depth and emotion. Brothers Mark (Steve Zissis) and Jeremy (Mark Kelly) compete in their own 25-event Olympic games to repair their relationship and revert the controversy surrounding the original Do-Deca from 1990. Both brothers are no longer young, but their competitive nature drives them to keep competing, all done away from the eyes of Mark’s wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur). The cast has an amazing dynamic which enhances the script.
The Duplass brothers use conventional sports movie tropes to film the events between Mark and Jeremy, and it makes the events in the Do-Deca even more absurd than they already are. In one of the first events, laser tag, Jeremy and Mark fight to sudden death. The film uses quick cuts and music to cut the scene like a high-energy combat scene, when really the two of them are acting like complete children while the rest of the family looks on in confusion. These competitions get more and more intense, and the movie even utilizes the ever-popular sports montage midway through. Treating these events with the gravitas of a real Olympic games makes Jeremy and Mark’s game real. And when things reach their boiling point, as things often do with siblings, the conflict seems genuine. The Duplass brothers are masters of the real-life comedy, and I can’t wait to see what else they have in store for us. AD
Earlier today, I said that See Girl Run is the kind of movie that as much as I want to like it, I simply can’t. Well, on the opposite end of the spectrum is Crazy Eyes, a movie that I don’t want to like, but can’t help myself. The film centers on Lukas Haas, in his first starring role since I don’t know when (Witness, maybe?), playing a young, alcoholic millionaire named Zach. That’s your first red light right there; we don’t really need any more stories about immature, privileged douchebags who go around doing whatever they want all the time. And yet somehow, Haas (with the help of the supporting cast) helps us buy into it here, for the umpteenth time. In fact, his performance is ridiculously convincing. For such an untraditional-looking guy, he plays the smarmy, apathetic ladies man with both an ease and a certain grace.
Joining him in the role of the titular character is Californication’s Madeline Zima as Rebecca, a.k.a Crazy Eyes. Perhaps Zima is destined to play exploited sexpots for the better part of her career, but to her credit, she does make the sexpot she plays in this movie simultaneously sympathetic and unlikeable. Then again, no one is really likeable here. This is just another movie about stupid people wasting their youth in L.A., either unwilling or unable to change. But the performances are good (I didn’t even get to Jake Busey, perfectly cast as Zach’s psychopathic best friend), the film is well made and Crazy Eyes is surprisingly watchable, considering what a recycled idea it is. CO
Somebody Up There Likes Me
A review of Somebody Up There Likes Me almost feels perfunctory, given the colossal shrug with which everything within it happens. Max (Keith Poulson) and Sal (Nick Offerman) are lifelong frenemies who drift in and out of consciousness while sharing a lover (Jess Weixler) and somehow becoming successful businessmen despite approaching life with the collective ambition of a tree stump. I could observe how Weixler and Offermen are both too charming and engaging for this film, or that the massive narrative jumps aim for existential disorientation on the level of Synecdoche, New York, but fall far too short mostly because of the absolute apathy on display. I could observe how all the performers involved are robbed of charisma by an utterly lazy screenplay, or how the entire story seems yanked from the collected volume of indie quirk cliches. But if Somebody doesn’t care to take the time to form something resembling a cohesive film, why bother? DM
The Raid: Redemption
The immediate reaction to The Raid: Redemption, for the discerning action filmgoer, will likely go as follows: HOLY SHIT THAT FUCKING MOVIE WAS AWESOME. To avoid aggressive fanboying, I’ll just observe that this is one of the best action films in years, because holy shit, this fucking movie is awesome. The plot is streamlined and simple: Around twenty special forces police officers enter an Indonesian tenement run by a sadistic kingpin, who fills the apartments with criminals seeking refuge. When they’re quickly discovered, despite their best attempts to remain discreet, they have to fight their way out. That’s as much story as you’ll get; if you want plot development, The Raid is not your film. However, if you abide by the rule that an action movie need only action, look no further. Much of the film is based on jaw-dropping hand-to-hand combat, and the speed at which the fights (which are plentiful) unfold is alarming. The Raid isn’t as much an action movie as it is a 90-minute jolt of pure adrenaline, and that’s perfectly fine. DM