Culture

SXSW Film 2012: Monday

21-Jump-Street-2012

It’s now day four of Heave’s SXFilm coverage from Austin! Your battle-worn contributors are:

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

frankie go boom

Can a film be referred to under the umbrella of “comedy of humiliation” when the making of a comedy of humilation is its topic? frankie goes boom, which may well go down as the best film of SXSW 2012, poses this conundrum. Frank (Charlie Hunnam) has been tortured from an incredibly young age by his brother Bruce (Chris O’Dowd of Bridesmaids), and this hasn’t changed with time. Fresh out of rehab, Bruce has decided to channel his energies into filmmaking, which causes problems when an embarassing pre-coital moment between Frank and new love interest Lassie (Lizzy Caplan) is captured on film by Bruce and put on the internet. Over a few long, bizarre days, Frank and Bruce cross paths with a spry, blind Mexican man, two small-time web porn peddlers, an ex-porn star (Chris Noth) and a wise post-transition trans female, played in an out-of-nowhere, fantastic turn by Ron Perlman.

Not only is the rapport between every member of frankie‘s cast impeccable, but director Jordan Roberts knows exactly how to pitch Frank’s exasperation for maximum comic effect. Not only is the situation Bruce puts them in terrible, but it soon emerges that this isn’t the first time Bruce has played an unpleasant role in Frank’s life. A lot of credit is owed not only to Hunnam, whose comedic chops have been forgotten amongst years of Sons of Anarchy, but to O’Dowd, who’s the sort of irascible bastard that comes off likable without letting anybody forget just how terrible he really is. The love story between Hunnam and Caplan, too, is far more effective than it needs to be, and gives the movie some soul amongst the nonstop laughs. frankie go boom may not have a distribution deal yet, as per Roberts, but a film this funny won’t stay hidden forever. DM

Compliance

Compliance is the kind of movie that is so unbelievable that if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, the whole thing would be downright unwatchable. This is the rare film that is actually improved by its “based on a true story” status. While that moniker usually does nothing but create skepticism among audiences, or make us wish they had dressed things up even more to make the film more interesting, knowing that Compliance is grounded at least somewhat in reality gives the whole thing an essential context.

The film centers on Sandra (Ann Dowd), a manager at a fast food restaurant, and an employee of hers named Becky (Dreama Walker). Sandra gets a call from a man who says he’s a police officer, and who claims that a woman has reported that Becky stole money out of her purse earlier that day. What unfolds over the next few hours starts out as the officer gaining control over Becky through Sandra, and ends up as a horrifying experiment in control and authority.

Compliance is a cold, uncomfortable film, done with so little feeling that its more severe moments border on exploitation. It gives adequate time to all of its characters, and the performances are undoubtedly all very good. But what’s really at the heart of the film is the idea that we are often so willing to submit ourselves to our superiors that it becomes easy to forget the rights we have as human beings in the process. Writer/director Craig Zobel has made this film a piercing reminder that we give police and politicians and members of the military and anyone else we look up to so much power in this country that sometimes we forget that just because someone holds a title doesn’t mean they have our best interests at heart. Moreover, Compliance points out the fact that we are all subservient to someone; even our boss has a boss, and generally they are just as scared of that person as we are of them.

I have to say, the most disappointing thing about Compliance for me was the audience I saw it with, which was one of the worst I think I’ve ever been a part of at SXSW. As things began to escalate throughout the movie, a few of them began to laugh, and on at least one occasion, shout out in disbelief. In principle, I understand this. What’s happening onscreen in Compliance is indeed ridiculous, and at times it’s almost unbearably hard to believe that any of the characters could be so stupid or naive. But like I said, this movie isn’t Saw XI, and the fact that there’s some truth to this story gives the whole thing a frightening ethos which isn’t the least bit comical. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t find the sexual humiliation of a 19-year-old girl that funny. But hey, that’s just me. CO

Medium Cool: 4 (Not So) Shorts

Medium Cool is a collection of shorts that aren’t really that short (as the title suggests), going as long as 28 minutes. Normally, short films are hit or miss, but all the shorts in this program were excellent, the four films each covering a different feeling and a different genre. The Man That Got Away is a musical about director Trevor Anderson’s great-uncle Jimmy, one that utilizes a spiral parking garage to show the stages in his life. I’ve never seen a short that’s also been a musical before, and using the spiral to show Jimmy’s descent into drugs was an excellent device.

Random Strangers is a love story for a new age, where Lulu and Rocky meet on a chat roulette and fall for each other. All 20-somethings have explored the realms of internet dating and chat flirting, and it really resonates with the modern romance atmosphere. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the last chapter in Don Hertzfeldt’s Everything Will Be OK trilogy, and it’s by far the saddest, which is saying a lot for Hertzfeldt’s work. The end of Bill’s story is touching, and even if you haven’t seen the other stories in this trilogy, its impact is no less intense. The last film, Heimkommen (Coming Home), shows the dynamic between brother and sister after they both experience the loss of a loved one. Seeing Johanna and Robert experience the death of the same person so differently is heartwrenching and real, as both of their reactions are within the more inappropriate and yet understandable realms of grief. AD

Girls

SXSW wunderkind Lena Dunham is the kind of upcoming writer/director/actor/producer/whatever that deserves credit for finding and defining her voice so clearly by the tender age of 25. Tiny Furniture, the big hit of this festival two years ago, was the first time that people really paid attention to who Dunham was, and divisive as that movie is, it announced her presence in an unmistakable way. I wouldn’t even necessarily say I was a fan of Tiny Furniture, but I was able to recognize an original voice when I saw one. With Girls, Lena Dunham’s new HBO television show, the first three episodes of which were shown as a preview, Dunham has managed to stay true to who she is, while making one major adjustment. This time around, it looks like she’s having fun.

While it may be easy to find Dunham’s “So sad and pathetic it’s hilarious” approach to be either too uncomfortable or too familiar to get behind, it’s an approach that young women in comedy are rarely allowed to use. However, whereas in Tiny Furniture Dunham seemed to be almost too content to wallow in her insecurities, Girls shows a young woman who’s determined to make it, despite seemingly having all the odds stacked against her. This is why the show is such a blast to watch; at the end of the day, no matter how bad things get, no matter how dark the situation, Dunham manages to cast some comedic ray of light on it, and somehow, that kind of makes things okay.

Never mind the fact that Girls has been called this generation’s Sex and the City. That’s a comparison that Dunham should be both offended and flattered by. Sex and the City, love it or hate it, was one of the few shows of its time that gave a real voice to female characters. Dunham and her fantastic supporting cast of ladies (Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams) should be proud to be compared to a show that changed the landscape of television as far as the female perspective is concerned, and excited to improve upon what Sex and the City got wrong. That’s what great artists do; they find their voice, and then they improve things. They improve upon themselves, they improve upon their medium, and they improve upon what came before them. Now, with comedic genius Judd Apatow in her corner, who knows just how much Dunham can improve. And like I said, the best part is that it’s going to be fun to watch her do it. CO

The Sheik and I

I’ve never been in a movie at a festival where the audience doesn’t clap at the end until The Sheik and I. When the credits rolled, there was a minute of silence before someone starting politely clapping and the rest of the audience joined in. I honestly didn’t know what to think about this documentary. The Sheik and I follows independent filmmaker Caveh Zahedi (director of I Am a Sex Addict) as he films a movie in the United Arab Emirates for the Middle Eastern Biennial. As he blunders through the process, he’s met with artistic restrictions which ultimately lead to the film not being made.

I think Zahedi wanted this to be his Man of La Mancha, but it doesn’t even compare. Zahedi is completely ignorant to Middle Eastern culture, and as he films his feature he does things are terribly offensive, such as trying to use adhan (the Islamic call to prayer) to inspire a choreographed dance. Most Americans are ignorant of this culture and Islam, but when you’re commissioned to do a film by the nation you’re filming in, cultural sensitivity should be a priority. Though Zahedi’s attitude in the movie is a total turn-off, the documentary does show how differently Middle Eastern culture treats filmmaking and how much sway the Sheik of Sharjah and religion play on artistic development. Other than that and how adorable Zahedi’s two year old son Bennett is, this documentary is just plain uncomfortable. AD

21 Jump Street

The new trend of rebooting has created a variety of new movies of Hollywood – some of them bad, some of them good. It’s maddening that writers would rather take an old trend and make it new (rather than writing something original), but sometimes, though very rarely, the end product surpasses the predecessor. 21 Jump Street is a continuation of the late 80s/early 90s TV show, rather than a redo, and adds a more current comic twist on the established concept. Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) join the 21 Jump Street undercover unit after failing to meet standards in their own. The two go back to high school to put down a drug ring selling hallucinogenic drugs to the students. The concept sounds relatively simple, and it is, but it’s the writing and performances that make it a side-splitting comedy. Hill is funny as usual, playing a timid cop who finally gets the chance to be cool in high school. More surprisingly, Tatum keeps up with the amazing ensemble cast of comedy vets. Known for his more action-packed or romantic roles, I didn’t think he could keep up with the likes of Hill, Rob Riggle and so on, but Tatum’s performance as Jenko has some of the best one-liners in the movie and stays on par with his colleagues.

As entertaining as the original 21 Jump Street series was, this is a very different, and I’d say far better take on it. It’s very aware of the former, pseudo-dramatic series and even makes jokes and references to it. A reboot always gets the nostalgia audience in, but other than that it’s hard to keep crowds coming. Take a look at all the horror reboots happening – My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th, etc. – that get butts in the seats because of their built-in fan base, but tank critically because they’re poorly made. Not only does 21 Jump Street take a fresh and original spin on an established premise, but it’s written in a way that creates and caters to a new crowd of people without relying on the old series’ standing. AD

John Dies At The End

Don Coscarelli, perhaps known best for Bubba Ho-Tep, has reached exponential new levels of lunacy with his latest feature, John Dies At The End. Based on the novel by cult author David Wong, John is the tale of David (Chase Williamson), who talks Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a reporter, into listening to his long, bizarre tale. The cliffsnotes: David and his friend John (Rob Mayes) happened upon a new, otherworldly drug called “soy sauce” that gives the user almost unlimited sensory perception, but with the nasty side effect of being able to perceive creatures from alternate dimensions encroaching upon this world. As David and John battle giant spiders, an alien made out of meat and perhaps the coming apocalypse itself, David has to keep himself planted in reality long enough to get his story out and, maybe, save John.

This is the kind of head trip custom-made for midnight audiences, and Coscarelli works in just enough dark comedy to keep the escalating insanity palatable. Even then, though, there’s a pretty steep level of suspended disbelief required to get into John, primarily related to the fact that once temporal zone tripping gets involved, trying to figure out what’s “real” is for the most part entirely beside the point. Williamson is hilarious as Wong’s surrogate, a twitchy mess who doesn’t understand what his friend has unleashed or what’s happening around him, and Giamatti is solid as the skeptic who’s slowly swayed by the absolute improbability of Wong’s tale. John is some deeply, deeply weird stuff, but it also poses enough interesting ideas to remain worthwhile. DM