Monday, May 14, 2007

SXSW 2007

When a friendly young woman with a fistful of flyers and a headful of curls worked a line I was in at Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival last week, inviting people to a screening of her first feature, her enthusiasm and the “great stories” she promised convinced me to give it a try.

The curly-haired young woman is 29-year-old Naomi Greenfield. Her co-director, another first-time filmmaker – and a native of Princeton Junction -- is 27-year-old Sara Taksler. And their movie, which they call a “balloonamentary,” is Twisted, a charming, warmhearted, surefooted, often funny and sometimes deeply moving look at a close-knit community of people who twist and tie balloons into animals and other shapes.

Nominated for an Emerging Visions award, SXSW’s prize for first-time directors, Twisted isn’t about balloons per se, though it does show some amazing latex creations made and displayed at an annual balloon-twisting conference. It’s really about the collaborative culture of the balloon-twisting “family,” and how balloons helped several of the convention regulars transform their lives. “We wanted it to be stories about people,” says Sara. “And we lucked out, because it’s about life and love and death and race and all of those big themes. For us, it’s really a movie about finding your life – following your passion.”

The movie also includes a short animated sequence on the history of balloon-making narrated by Jon Stewart, who the filmmakers were able to book because Sara’s day job is helping to produce the field segments on The Daily Show. “We were trying to find somebody who would have a familiar voice and who would let people know right off the bat that it would be a funny movie,” she says, “so I asked if he’d do it. He said as long as there were no anti-Semitic balloons he was fine with it.”

Another excellent documentary that was looking for a distributor at the festival and seemed likely to find one (the Film Forum in Manhattan had already agreed to show it) was Manufacturing Dissent, an investigation of filmmaker Michael Moore by documentarians Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine. The filmmakers decided to make a film about Moore because they admired his work, but they developed a warier stance after being given the runaround by Moore, getting harassed by the handlers who surround him at public appearances, and hearing disturbing stories about how he distorts the truth in his films and how he can be, according even to his one remaining self-professed friend, “a little bit megalomaniac at times, with a tinge of paranoia.”

Melnyk and Caine practice what they preach, generally avoiding cheap shots and innuendo and giving Moore his due at the same time that they question his methods. In the end, they say, the most disturbing thing about Moore’s often glib, self-focused, rabble-rousing style is what its popularity says about the rest of us. “If there were a vibrant political left in the United States, Michael Moore’s milquetoast populism would be laughed at rather than laughed with,” says political journalist and critic David Marsh.

Documentary is usually the strongest category of film at SXSW, but a lot of my favorites this year were fiction. The best was Exiled, a 2006 Hong Kong action thriller scheduled for release in the U.S. this June. Director Johnny To is huge in his own country and deserves to be here, but pretty much the only Americans who get to see his taut, clever, and stylishly soulful films are cinephiles and Hong Kong movie buffs. A cat-and-mouse game between a tight-knit group of gangsters and the boss they are trying to outwit and outrun, Exiled is studded with To’s expertly choreographed gunfights, which are usually held at claustrophobically close range.

Like its older sibling, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, director Judd Apatow’s latest starts with a plot that’s exaggerated for comic effect and stuffs it full of perfectly pitched set pieces about contemporary life that get you humming like a tuning fork. Also like its older sibling, Knocked Up radiates genuine affection for every one of its characters. I don’t want to spoil it for you, since it will be in theaters this June. Just go see it, and tell me if Ben’s “dice move” and the exchange between Debbie and the bouncer don’t make you inordinately happy.

But another fiction film by an established writer-director, Reign Over Me, left me stone cold even though it co-starred one of my favorites, the always excellent Don Cheadle. As in The Upside of Anger, director Mike Binder dresses up a melodramatic screenplay with big-name actors, pairing a gifted artist (Joan Allen in Anger and Cheadle in Reign) with a star who can act if he tries, but doesn’t always bother (Kevin Coster in Anger, Adam Sandler here). Binder, an actor himself, coaxed fine performances out of both Costner and Sandler, but his overwritten scripts squeeze the life out of his films despite the casts’ best efforts. Reign Over Me opens today, probably in way too many theaters.

Young directors worth watching for include Ry Russo-Young, whose first feature, Orphans, is a smart, sad story of a difficult relationship between two sisters that conveys an impressive amount of emotionally complex material without a word of excessive or unnatural-sounding dialogue. Moon Molson’s heartbreaking 20-minute short, Pop Foul, had far more heft than almost any of the full-length films. Shorts are often calling cards for a longer film the director hopes to make on the topic, if he can raise enough money. If that’s what Molson has in mind, I hope someone has the sense to fund him. He clearly has a lot to say about the Siamese-twin diseases of urban poverty and violence and their close cousin, misplaced machismo, and I’d like to hear it all.

Written for TimeOFF

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