Saturday is the last-chance day for the film side of the South By Southwest Festival. It's the day you spend lots of time rushing from one screening to another, knowing that this is your last chance to catch some of the movies — literally your last chance, in some cases, because if they don't get a distribution deal, you'll never be able to see them again. It's the day when you realize that you've spent a lot of time, emotion and intellectual energy on films that may end up never getting an audience, which is too bad for you, but an even bigger bummer for the filmmakers, who are at this point wandering the streets with drugged bonbons in an attempt to get us in front of their screenings. And, for multi-purpose culture jockeys like myself, it's also a highly risky day, because the music festival is also ending, and the temptation is great to slip away from the dark theaters and get out into some gorgeous Texas spring weather for a live show. I'm not saying I did this and I'm not saying I didn't, but a little bird broke into my hotel room and told me that the Soft Pack and Akron/Family at the Mess With Texas show absolutely tore shit up, and I choose to believe that little bird.
Anyway, don't cry for me, Oniontina. Weep instead for folks like Sean O'Neal and Josh Modell, so paralyzed with liquor plied by various media-company lowlifes that by midday on Saturday, their eardrums were shattered and their livers permanently damaged by days of crazy rock and roll. It's a man's life at SxSW Music; me, I am just a hired geek who watches movies all day. Here's what I thought of Saturday's.
Regular readers will know that I have no love for 'mumblecore', the breakout mini-genre (much beloved of Austin filmmakers and audiences) featuring slow pacing, naturalistic acting, awkward emotional relationships, amateur casts, and meandering camerawork, all hung over a frame of the least engaging plots imaginable, largely centering around middle-class, mildly bohemian white people who have a hard time stating their feelings. Even after this year's SxSW, at which it became clear that mumblecore wasn't going away, and with the digitial filmmaking revolution, might even become a force to be reckoned with, I still don't quite cotton to it; Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax was warmly received by most critics at the festival, while I found it as inconsequential and weightless as anything else he's ever done. On the other hand, Joe Swanberg's latest, Alexander the Last, pulled off a minor miracle: it's a mumblecore picture I don't hate.
Alexander the Last (which was produced by Noah Baumbach, a fact that may or may not have something to do with why it's so much tighter and more efficient than Swanberg's other films) isn't an altogether coherent film, but at least it's constructed of small, meaningful vignettes as opposed to the endless drifting wreck that is a typical mumblecore picture. It involves the sexual and emotional trials and temptations of Alex, a New York actress (played by the lively and beatiful Jess Weixler) who lands a part in a theatrical production and soon becomes romantically obsessed with the show's male lead, at a time when she's becoming equally estranged from her own husband, a touring musician. The plot isn't exactly Shakespearian in its depth and strength, but at least there is one.
Much of what I liked about Alexander was its acting, which is the criterion by which a lot of movies like this live and die. Weixler's energetic, compelling performance is illustrative of the fact that amateur actors are all well and good, but there's a limit to what they can bring to a project. But there's more to it than that: while some directors in the genre, like Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers, seem content to simply refine a technique they've decided is sufficient, Swanberg actually seems to be learning; compared to his previous work, Alexander the Last is taut, emotionally attuned in a way the audience can clearly respond to, and disciplined, with each of its 72 minutes lean and watchable. If this isn't just a fluke, he may be the first mumblecore director to break out of the ghetto of genre and make a genuinely great film.
As I mentioned in my preview of this year's South By Southwest film festival, the only thing I can imagine that's more fun than listening to Iron Maiden is actually being in Iron Maiden. For all its stone-faced sincerity and heavy progressive metal vibe, the guys in this venerable NWOBHM band always look like they're having a blast doing what they do, and if we've learned anything from movies like Stop Making Sense, it's that bands who love their jobs make the best subjects for documentaries. Of course, Iron Maiden: Flight 666 isn't exactly a tour document, and it isn't exactly a music film, and it isn't exactly a biopic either, but whatever it is, it's infused with a sense of joy and energy that's found in the best of all these types of films. It won the Jury Award for best music documentary at SxSW this year, and for anyone who's seen it, it's pretty much impossible to argue the decision.
Maiden's lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, is a man of many talents: a filmmaker, writer, expert fencer, and history buff, he's also a qualified commercial airline pilot who's flown a handful of humanitarian missions and is a huge devotee of aviation. This is the aspect of his character that gives Flight 666 its hook; on their most recent world tour, the band decided to fly from venue to venue aboard a specially equipped commercial jet (dubbed "Ed Force One", after their zombie mascot) piloted by Dickson himself. As he shuttled the band from place to place, he also allowed the film's directors (Sam Dunn & Scot McFadyen of Metal: A Headbanger's Journey) an unprecedented degree of access to the band, giving them near-constant access to a group that's been playing together for 30 years but has avoided the kind of absurdly self-pitying personal conflicts that seem to consume other bands in the same business.
Of course, the greatest talent that Dickinson has is his astonishing voice, which earned him the nickname "the Air Raid Siren" and made him one of the most beloved and distinctive frontmen in rock. That's on full display here, and while it's enjoyable to see his geeky enthusiasm for flying, what really comes through in the movie is that he's having the time of his life —as are fellow bandmembers like the gregarious Steve Harris and the hilarious Nicko McBrain. These are guys who, as noted, absolutely love what they do and see no reason to stop. It's a perfect companion piece to Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and a perfect tonic for those struggling bands who can't see a reason to go on in the face of constant failure and frustration. Their chances of making it might be slender, but it's nice to know that Maiden is up there in the sky somewhere, reaping the rewards of hard work and enthusiasm, and that success has only made them love it more — a fact that becomes evident whenever they touch down to an audience of screaming fans. Iron Maiden: Flight 666 should be required viewing for anyone who's forgotten that being a rock star is supposed to be fun.
Joel Anderson's Australian indie horror film, Lake Mungo, has already lined up enough money for a big-screen remake, so a review of the movie as it currently stands might be a waste of time. It's impossible to know what the extra dollars will do to a movie this delicately crafted and meticulously made — not only is it two years off, but there's no telling what Anderson will do with the extra money. Hopefully, it'll go to a more professional cast and slight improvements to the technical aspects of the movie, and not to an overhaul of the whole thing into something big and loud and 'terrifying' — in all those aspects, it's just fine as it is, a quiet little mood piece that evokes chills rather than shock through suggestion and tone instead of gore and grotesquerie.
The plot deals with the drowning in the titular lake of a teenage girl under mysterious circumstances, and from the very beginning, it's clear that we're not dealing with a movie that gets its scares in the usual way. Here, it's all suggestion, insinuation, and psychology: the girl's family is utterly crippled with guilt, an emotion no less devastating than horror, and the initial mood is set by their inability to get a real answer about their childs' death, which only compounds their feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame. The character of the daughter remains enigmatic throughout, revealed only through interviews with her loved ones and well-staged home movie footage, which makes the appearance of seemingly supernatural elements involving her death all the more creepy when they finally begin to seep into the narrative.
I went into Lake Mungo a bit dubious, as the pseudo-documentary gimmick has more or less been beaten to death in horror movies of late. The Blair Witch Project was the first and best mainstream movie to use the conceit, and since then, every subsequent try at it makes it a little bit more hackneyed and a little worse. Anderson's interpretation, however, is powerfully strong: reducing it (for budgetary reasons, no doubt, but it still works) to a television level gives it a claustrophobic quality that perfectly suits the mood. John Brawley's excellent cinematography helps things a great deal, and Anderson's piling on of a constant sense of dread and mystery evokes not so much other big-screen horror movies that use the documentary gimmick like Quarantine as it does the "Hero" segment of Todd Haynes' Poison. It's a flawed but extremely well-made little movie, and the proposed remake, if it doesn't screw up the careful alchemy of the original, could herald the arrival of a major genre talent.
So, adieu, SxSW followers. I'm heading back home, and leaving behind Austin's pleasant climes 'til next year. (Well, actually, I'll be back up here in a couple of weeks, but you won't get to read about it.) Thanks for your eyeballs, and I hope you've gotten a few decent recommendations out of this long haul. And if you saw me in Austin this year, spread the word that I'm tall, insightful, and tipped well, and never once tried to reserve a hotel room via the use of a skanky old cowboy hat.