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Mark Wensel’s Excellent Adventure: SXSW 2018 Edition

It was the best of times, it was the…well, pretty much usually the best.

For 20 years, I’ve been volunteering for and enjoying the hell out of South By Southwest. This was my first time as just an attendee. That gave me a bit more time to see more movies, but it really weird to be kind of on the outside. Good, but weird.

Anyway, even with all of the changes over the last 21 years, I still love SXSW. Here’s what I did with my time.

 

A QUIET PLACE

John Krasinski is not a horror guy. He doesn’t like the, typically, and he damn sure didn’t really want to make one. But I’m glad he decided to, because his first foray into genre filmmaking is pretty great. A creature feature about monsters that attack the slightest sound, A Quiet Place is really about family and the way they interact with each other under duress.

He and real-life wife Emily Blunt are parents to two kiddos. The preteen boy (Noah Jupe) is understandably scared of just about everything while the teen girl (Millicent Simmonds from Wonderstruck) is rebellious and angry. They all just want to survive in an insane post-technology world.

Beautiful creature effects, characters we care about and organic jump scares to spare, A Quiet Place is a fun, well-made horror film that makes me hope that John decides to go back to the genre well soon.

 

THE WORLD BEFORE YOUR FEET

When you love a city, you want to see every square inch of it. Matt Green decided that it was time to walk every street, park, cemetery, walkable surface in all five buroughs of New York City. He takes pictures, meets people and researches everywhere he goes, blogging about his adventures as he goes. Because he doesn’t have an apartment and stay with people along the way, he’s able to do this as his daily activity instead of working at the engineering job that he left over ten years ago.

The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that Matt is actually a pretty damaged person. He’s friendly and likable, but he has some issues that he definitely needs to work through. (Interviews with two of his ex-girlfriends bear this out.) It doesn’t take away from the enormity or the beauty of his mission. It makes me want to do the same thing in my own hometown…just without quitting my job and giving up all of my relationships.

 

FAST COLOR

Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw from A Wrinkle In Time) is on the run because of her super powers. These powers were passed down from the women in her family. Eventually, she finds her way home with the government on her tail. But as strong as the government is, her family bond is stronger. Lorraine Toussaint (from Orange Is The New Black) and Saniyya Sidney (from Fences) are her mother and daughter and they’ve been learning to hone their powers while Ruth has been trying to subdue hers…mostly because hers involve devastating earthquakes.

A movie that started out as a story of women’s empowerment and the ways that they would use those powers, it ended up also being about women of color and their bonds. A sci-fi/superhero film for a new age. If A Wrinkle In Time was too preachy and saccharine for you, this is your film.

 

THE ATOMIC CAFE (1982)

The only revival film I saw this year, this might also be the most important film I saw. (It’s tied with On Her Shoulders…more on that, later.) A collage of government propaganda films strung together to tell the “official” history of nuclear warfare in America. It’s obvious that much of the information in the films is lie after lie (“Duck and Cover’? Really?) and that’s the whole point of the film. The government lied to us from the beginning of the nuclear era and, to this day, hasn’t stopped. It’s amazing how well the story comes across from hundreds of disparate sources across four decades. It really is a masterpiece of avant-garde documentary filmmaking.

After this film was made, the government took a look at its policies on allowing people to use propaganda films.

 

THE NEW ROMANTIC

Blake (Jessica Barden) is a super privileged white girl, even though she’s broke. She parties, barely studies (as far as the audience can tell) and just wants to be like Hunter S. Thompson…with no real inclination that Hunter, while a brilliant writer, was not a particularly good role model with issues upon issues upon issues.

When she accidentally picks up the wrong ID while buying booze, she entered a world of prostitution…I mean, “sugarbabies.” She becomes one to a professor and proceeds to write about it in her school newspaper, expecting everything to be ok because she changed the names.

The acting was decent, but that’s about as far as I’ll go for this one. It was frustrating because there don’t seem to be any consequences to any of Blake’s actions. Like…none. At all. Gonzo journalism is all well and good, but it doesn’t work so well in a small community like a college.

 

FAMILY

Juggalos have gotten a lot of press, lately, most of it surprisingly positive. Here, they nearly get their own movie! Taylor Schilling is a career driven young woman with no friends and a pretty estranged family. When her brother calls her out of the blue to watch her niece (Bryn Vale) for one night, her entire world gets turned upside down. And then there are Juggalos.

Definitely from the Judd Apatow school of comedy, this is a little movie with a silly premise and a big heart.

 

A VIGILANTE

Who will fight for the victims of domestic violence? Sadie (Olivia Wilde) will. After escaping her own abuse, she trained herself into a fighting machine, going from town to town beating the hell out of people who abuse their “loved” ones. Male or female, she doesn’t care. If they call, she goes. Not the “fun” vigilante film of old, this is modern day art film violence.

Every one of her “victims” deserves everything she gives them. Then, when her abuser shows up, things get really rough. Maybe not a great film, but certainly one that deserves a watch, giving a visceral thrill to see a woman go after terrible people.

 

THE DIRECTOR AND THE JEDI

A heartfelt documentary about the making of The Last Jedi, mostly focusing on the two folks in the title. We follow Rian Johnson from getting the job to the last day of shooting with some following of Mark Hamill on his first real outing as Luke since 1983.

The emotional roller coaster of starting off not liking this new portrayal of Luke, to seeing Yoda for the first time in 30 years, to eventually coming around to Rian’s vision is so much fun to watch. Definitely one of the better making-of docs I’ve seen in a long time.

 

WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE

A lesbian survival horror films? Sounds great! Unfortunately, logic problems prevail.

The story is good: The married couple go out to a house in the woods that one of them grew up in. Eventually, Jules (Brittany Allen) finds out that her wife, Jackie (Hannah Anderson) isn’t who she says she is. Then it becomes a cat and mouse game where the mouse probably should have died about 14 times. Or at least should have been smarter than she was.

The movie was beautifully shot and well acted and I really liked the premise. But the execution just didn’t add up to a good film.

 

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

It’s the year of Mr. Rogers! This is the second documentary about the man and it’s a doozie. Love and tears will flow as you see Fred Rogers give up the ministry to teach children how to deal with the everyday toils of life. Or as Lady Aberlin explains assassination to Daniel Striped-Tiger. Or as Mr. Rogers confronts the government to try to save PBS.

Mr. Rogers was such a huge part of so many kids’ lives and this documentary lives up to his legacy. Directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom and Best Of Enemies), this is a movie that everyone should see, if only to remind themselves that there are some truly decent people in this world.

 

VIRUS TROPICAL

This is a great little coming of age animated film about a young girl in Columbia. She’s the youngest girl of three and, while there are a lot of traditional Columbian aspects of their lives, the story is very universal.

My ONLY complaint is that the animation style is exactly like Persepolis, which was a much better film. This one may have more crossover appeal because of its lack of political commentary, and it’s still very good. But I couldn’t help thinking of Persepolis throughout.

 

ELIZABETH HARVEST

What a strange little film. Elizabeth is a newlywed who is brought to an opulent, secluded house that her new husband (Ciaran Hinds) tells her is all hers…except for one room that she’s not allowed to step into. Of course, her thumbprint opens all doors…including that one. When her curiosity gets the better of her (which doesn’t take long), what she sees explains a lot, but it also brings up far more questions.

Carla Gugino, Matthew Beard and Dylan Baker co-star in this question mark of a film that alternates between creepy romance, science-fiction and horror. It doesn’t always work, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’re into weird films.

 

BLAZE

Not a lot of people know about Blaze Foley, the Austin music legend who could write a song better than just about anybody, but couldn’t seem to keep his life together long enough to record an album. Bipolar and homeless for most of his life, he made a name for himself via infrequent live shows (often with friend and more well-known legend, Townes Van Zandt).

Ben Dickey brings Blaze to life in Ethan Hawke’s loving ode to the man. All of his sweetness and contradictory feelings make him a tragic figure who everyone who meets him loves, even if they don’t quite understand him. Charlie Sexton plays Townes nearly perfectly. It really helps to have musicians playing these people, because it makes the soundtrack incredibly good.

The movie is told from three different perspectives of time: the time that Blaze lived with his wife (Alia Shawkat) in a tree in the woods, the last night of his life, and an interview with Townes and his producer (Josh Hamilton) not long after Blaze’s death. These time periods are intercut together and it makes the film almost Rashomon like.

It’s a beautiful film and should be seen by anyone interested in music. Especially a time when Austin was a breeding ground for underground country/folk artists like Blaze and Townes.

 

MEOW WOLF: ORIGIN STORY

I love Meow Wolf. That place is amazing. You can get lost in it for hours and still keep finding new things to experience. (Not just see, but experience.)

This movie is the story of how it all came together, from the punk rock origins of the artists to the (soon to be) multi-location business that it’s become. It’s a great story with a lot of really interesting characters and amazing art. The documentary itself is far more interesting than it is good, but it’s absolutely worth seeking out. The aesthetic can be a little over the top, but forgive it that. The Meow Wolf artists are heroes.

 

ON HER SHOULDERS

An important film about the genocide of the Yazidi people of the Middle East.

They were nearly wiped out by ISIS and Nadia Murad was held hostage and repeatedly raped while her family was killed. She managed to escape and now, at 23, has become the voice of her people, telling her story to anyone who will listen. She travels the world speaking to government officials of every country and, finally, the UN, hoping that someone will do anything to stop the genocide.

Alexandria Bombach has made a film that not only teaches us about this horrific episode of world history, but also shows us how we, as the world community, treat the survivors of these episodes. So many governments have told Nadia and her people that they want to help…but they just can’t, for one reason or another.

Or they’ll tell her “someday.” Luckily, Amal Clooney is involved now and is actively pursuing a lawsuit against ISIS to bring this issue to the world courts.

On Her Shoulders is a bit dry at times, but it’s worth every harrowing minute. Nadia’s story must be heard.

 

 

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