SXSW Film recap

This is long overdue, but some folks over on Facebook asked me for a recap of the movies I saw last month at the SXSW Film Conference & Festival. But first, you might be asking, what was Bill doing at SXSW Film anyway?

Nothing mysterious. I attended the SXSW Interactive Festival for the first time in 2012. Though I had a great time there, I kept seeing posters for movies I wanted to see but couldn't because I didn't have a Film badge. So for 2013 I bought the Gold badge, which gives access to both Interactive and Film.

If I go again in 2014, I might just get the Film membership. I enjoyed it that much.

I didn't get to attend everything I wanted, but here's a rundown of the four feature films I did manage to see.

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing


Joss Whedon's black-and-white adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy, filmed in twelve days at his own house, was definitely one of the hot tickets of the festival. Featuring familiar faces from all over the Whedonverse, the adaptation is a lot of fun and often cleverly staged, though I found it pretty uneven on the whole. Not every actor gets a good handle on the language, though Amy Acker is wonderful in the lead role of Beatrice. The show-stealer, though, is Nathan Fillion as the bumbling Dogberry. Worth seeing, in particular for Whedon fans. Opens June 7.

(After the screening, Whedon and most of the cast held an hour-long Q&A. That was worth waiting in line right there.)

MUD (dir. Jeff Nichols)

My expectations for this, Jeff Nichols' third film, ran very high on the basis of his earlier movies, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, both of which I loved. I was not disappointed. This story of two teenaged boys in Arkansas who befriend a drifter on a remote river island is thrilling and harrowing, but is also a sweet and lyrically told coming-of-age story. It's no surprise that Matthew McConaughey is so good as the drifter Mud, but it is a surprise that Reese Witherspoon turns in such a gritty, unglamorous performance as Mud's love interest. (It's been a long time since she's had a role like this.) But despite supporting players like Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker, and Michael Shannon, the real stars are Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone, the two boys who are caught up in events just beyond their understanding, both criminal and emotional. Nichols really has a way with actors, not to mention with landscapes. Opens April 26.

I predict this is going to be a big hit, and I also predict that audiences will love it so much that there will be an indie backlash against it later this year as the film where Jeff Nichols sold out. If that happens, ignore the backlash.

UPSTREAM COLOR (dir. Shane Carruth)

If you saw Shane Carruth's first film, 2004's twisty, tricky time-travel flick Primer, then you know pretty much what to expect from this, only his second feature. Upstream Color is told in the same compressed, elliptical style of collage, with great stretches that go by without dialog. It's the story of a woman putting her life back together after a traumatic brainwashing incident, and, like Primer, it adds up to both more and less than the sum of its parts. More, because the stunning visuals and editing create a powerful and hypnotical emotional effect. Less because, even more than the earlier film, Upstream Color leaves you feeling stupid, as if you've missed something important that was right in front of you, or maybe that Carruth only wants you to think was there. I would recommend seeing it, especially if you liked Primer, but know that it will probably frustrate you, and that it contains some truly horrific, hard-to-watch imagery of cruelty to pigs. Opened, like, last week.

HEY BARTENDER (dir. Douglas Tirola)

Hey Bartender is a feature documentary about the resurgence of cocktail culture in the past decade. It's probably best experienced at a theater that, in fact, serves cocktails—I saw it at the Slaughter Lane location of the Alamo Drafthouse—but will be equally enjoyable no matter where you can manage to see it. The film features interviews with many of the stars of the American cocktail scene but focuses on two bartenders in particular: Steve Schneider of Manhattan's ultra-successful Employees Only, and Steve Carpentieri of Dunville's in Westport, Connecticut, a bar that's suffering as the cocktail revolution passes it by. Both Steves come across as sweet, sympathetic guys you want to see succeed, and both face some extreme obstacles along the way. (Bonus points that the soundtrack is made up almost exclusively of Joe Jackson songs.) I can't find a release date anywhere, which is a shame, but I hope you'll at least be able see it at a festival or on demand sometime soon.

Both Steves were at the screening I attended, by the way, and Steve Schneider (a former Marine) created a special cocktail for everyone in the audience. I loved his story so much that I couldn't help giving him a hug after the screening. He seemed to take it in stride.