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Category: South by Southwest

SXSW 2011: 'Kill List' mixes the mundane and the unthinkable [Update]

March 14, 2011 |  6:34 pm



Playing as part of the SXFantastic sidebar at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, “Kill List” marks the return to Austin for British filmmaker Ben Wheatley. He was previously in town for the 2009 edition of the genre-centric Fantastic Fest with his first film, “Down Terrace,” which began as a look at small-town gangsters where the stakes were so small as to seem comical and built up to something terrifying and stunning. With “Kill List,” Wheatley again steadily escalates from the banal to the bruising.

After a screening Sunday night, the audience was so seemingly disoriented and stunned, as if it had been collectively struck by a head-butt, that it took a few moments for anyone to think of a question to ask during the Q&A.

[For the record: An earlier version of this post stated that Ben Wheatley's "Down Terrace" played as part of the 2010 South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. The film actually premiered in Austin at the fall 2009 edition of the Fantastic Fest film festival. Wheatley's new film, "Kill List," is playing at the 2011 edition of SXSW as part of SXFantastic, a sidebar programmed by Fantastic Fest.]

"Kill List," which premiered Saturday at midnight and screened again Sunday night, is deceptive, tricky and creates something of a phantasm of anxieties large and small.

"It's based around my dreams and nightmares," Wheatley said while introducing the film Sunday, "which includes being chased, being trapped in small places and, indeed, long and difficult dinner parties — all types of horror."

The film opens with a dinner party between two couples who don't seem to particularly enjoy each other's company. The men (Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley) are former army buddies who now sometimes work together. Business has been off lately — apparently even hit men can be affected by an economic downturn — so when a job comes along that seems too good to be true, they have no option but to take it.

Escalating from uncomfortable domestic drama to gritty action to cult-horror freakout, likely few other films reference both Mike Leigh and "The Wicker Man."

"It's definitely a film of acts," Wheatley said after the Sunday screening. "The move forward was going from a domestic drama and it mutates — I don't know why I'm explaining it, you've just watched it."

Asked if some the film's cult religious imagery was taken from anything specific, Wheatley said he just made it all up.

"It's actually stuff I'm afraid of in my own mind, and I know it's been made up in my head, in dreams and like that, so I was trying to find that primal, scared point. I guess what you see is just a fear of other people, organized groups of people. It doesn't really matter what their belief system is or how they jam it all together, you don't need to know that. You just need to know their goal is something cohesive and they don't like you."


— Mark Olsen in Austin, Texas


Photo from "Kill List" from SXSW.

SXSW 2011: 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop' is hard for him to watch

March 14, 2011 |  5:01 pm

When Conan O’Brien quit "The Tonight Show" after NBC changed his time slot in January 2010, the comedian suddenly found himself without one of his life necessities — an audience.

But within days, documentary filmmaker Rodman Flender gave him one, when he started shooting “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” a film that premiered Sunday at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, and will be released across the U.S. in a multi-platform deal distribution plan involving AT&T.

The documentary follows O’Brien on his first days after leaving NBC and as he plans and performs his 32-city “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour. With writing room, backstage, tour bus and airplane footage, the documentary reveals aspects of the comic most fans have never seen — he’s at times bitter, manic, aggressive, exhausted and fragile, but all the while brutally funny.

“This was a very difficult time for him, an improvisational time, and he didn’t know what was going to happen,” Flender said over coffee at Austin’s Driskill Hotel the morning after the film’s premiere at the 1,200-seat Paramount Theater. “What artist would want their creative process captured? What painter would want to be photographed trying to come up with a design or a sketch? Most smart artists don’t want to reveal that.”
The 88-minute film reveals that O’Brien’s backstage process involves some aggressive collaborating with his writers — he literally hits them. The comic has a remarkable ability to be narcissistic and self-mocking at the same time -- at one point he likens his staff's failure to appreciate one of his jokes to “throwing the 'Mona Lisa' out of the Louvre” and another time, exhausted by a gig and told it will be over soon, he says: "That's what they said to Anne Frank."

O'Brien applies his own under-eye concealer and blush before shows, out-dances his backup dancers and both berates and leans on his personal assistant and manager. During the tour, he lost a great deal of weight and seemed unable to turn off his compulsion to perform, using his day off to appear in his Harvard University reunion talent show.

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SXSW 2011: 'Attack the Block' hits Austin hard

March 14, 2011 |  1:12 pm


Fan favorites Simon Pegg and Nick Frost release their new film "Paul" this week, but in Austin on Saturday night it was another project related to the "Shaun of the Dead" duo and their director pal Edgar Wright that had audiences lined up around the block outside the Alamo Ritz theater: Joe Cornish's "Attack the Block," about what happens when a gang of English thugs encounter some otherworldly creatures.

Though the film is the feature directing debut for Cornish, the British writer-director-performer is no novice. He is well-known in England for the television comedy program "The Adam and Joe Show" and has more recently worked as a writing partner to Wright on "The Adventures of Tin-Tin: Secret of the Unicorn" and "Ant-Man." Wright, an executive producer on "Attack the Block," was in attendance Saturday for introductions and a post-screening Q&A, as were Cornish and actors Frost and Luke Treadaway. Wright collaborators Pegg and Anna Kendrick were in the audience as well.

"Attack the Block" opens with a group of inner-city South London boys mugging a woman. Shortly after, as they wander the streets aimlessly, they come across and kill what seems to be an alien creature. Lugging it around with them, they can't convince anyone of what it is. When vicious black-furred creatures begin to swarm and attack them, things go from weird to worse.

With a wild relentless energy and remarkable nighttime photography, "Attack the Block" is modulated by moments of comedy, but is overall less joke-oriented than one might expect given the filmmakers. It's more a high-energy chase film as the kids fend off suspicious police, gun-toting drug dealers and, yes, extraterrestrial invaders.

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SXSW 2011: An odd couple in 'The Dish and the Spoon'

March 14, 2011 |  8:56 am


In "The Dish and the Spoon," which had its world premiere Saturday as part of the Emerging Visions section of the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, a young woman (Greta Gerwig) is spiraling out of control after having discovered her husband has cheated on her with a woman she knows. At a diner, she meets a waifish young man (Olly Alexander) who is another seemingly lost soul, having come to America from England chasing a girl who promptly dumped him. Each in the pair, a genuine odd couple, finds solace and support in a person who is more or less a stranger.

Directed and co-written by Alison Bagnall, perhaps best known as co-writer of "Buffalo 66," the project came together quickly at the end of 2009 when financing for another project Bagnall had been working on with Gerwig abruptly fell apart. Having auditioned Alexander for that stalled film, and very much wanting to work with him, Bagnall wrote "The Dish and the Spoon" specifically for her two lead actors, with the setting an out-of-season seaside Delaware vacation town.

Enlisting current indie stalwarts Eleonore Hendricks and Amy Seimetz (who is also credited as a producer), Bagnall rounded out her cast and crew. Rather than the ironclad vision of some filmmakers, Bagnall was interested in turning the production process into one of discovery and was especially open to the input of her lead actors as to where they thought the story should go.

"I'm as controlling as any person who wants to direct a film," said Bagnall by phone from her home in Philadelphia before the premiere, "but in this film I wanted to see what they would do. I was more interested in what they thought about what the characters should do than what I wanted."

"There was a script she had written out that had the trajectory of essentially what's in the movie," said Gerwig by phone from New York. "I think we got a lot of the specificity from when we would talk through the scenes every night before we shot. We were just in this very weird place, an abandoned beach town in Delaware, so I think once we were all there, there was a lot of stimulus to creating scenes that were site specific in a way."

Alexander, on the same phone call with Gerwig but from London, said the film was shot pretty much chronologically, which allowed the actors and filmmaker to discover new things about the characters and "change it as we went."

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SXSW 2011: Horror mixes with wit in Ti West's 'The Innkeepers'

March 11, 2011 | 12:45 pm


Ti West does not believe in ghosts. The 30-year-old writer/director/editor of "The Innkeepers," which will have its world premiere Saturday as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, considers himself a skeptic when it comes to matters of the supernatural. But while shooting his previous film, the slow-burn satanic horror flick "The House of the Devil," strange things happened at the hotel where the cast and crew were staying. So strange that West ended up writing a script about a haunted hotel.

The Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Conn., not only provided the inspiration for "The Innkeepers," but West was able to shoot there as well. In the spring of last year, the production more or less took over the establishment for their 17-day shoot. Everyone stayed there again too, this time just popping down to the lobby from their rooms when it was time to work.

"So this movie is really close to what was happening when we weren't shooting 'House of the Devil,' when we were just staying there," West said in an interview this week in Los Angeles, noting that doors would open and close, lights would go on and off and everyone seemed to be having especially strange and vivid dreams.

When "The Innkeepers" plays in Austin on Saturday night at the 1,200-seat Paramount Theater, it will be the biggest single audience one of West's films has played to in the United States. The film goes into SXSW looking for distribution, and its prime timeslot and marquee venue could make it into one of the most buzzed-about screenings of this year's festival.

The story follows two desk clerks (Pat Healy and Sara Paxton) working at a large, lonely, historic hotel on its final weekend of operation before it closes for good. A pair of chatty nerds with clunky headphones, hoodies and at least one inhaler between them, the two like to talk (and joke) about the legend that the hotel is haunted. That is, until slowly they come to believe something really scary is really happening. The film costars Kelly McGillis as an actress who is one of the hotel's only guests and features a cameo by "Tiny Furniture" director Lena Dunham as an over-sharing barista.

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'The Beaver' is coming to SXSW -- but will Mel Gibson?

January 13, 2011 | 12:00 pm

"The Beaver," Jodie Foster's drama that features Mel Gibson as a depressed man who reinvents himself with the help of a beaver hand puppet, will have its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) in March.

Gibson's public meltdown -- and its uncomfortable proximity to "The Beaver's" subject matter -- has ignited an enormous amount of curiosity about the film. But festival organizers, who announced the premiere Thursday, said it was Foster's direction that won them over.

"We didn’t want to become involved with a film that would hijack our festival with tabloid noise," said SXSW Film Conference and Festival producer Janet Pierson. "But we were completely moved by the film itself. It’s a tough topic and incredibly well realized."

Foster, who directs and stars in the movie, will appear at the festival. "This is her chance to stand behind her work," Pierson said. "Her work has sort of gotten lost in this personal circumstance." It has not been determined yet whether Gibson will attend, Pierson said.

The Austin, Texas, festival also will cement its reputation for pop-culture-centric documentaries when it kicks off March 11 for its nine-day run.

"Conan O’Brien Can't Stop," about the 32-city stand-up tour the talk-show host embarked on after his much-publicized separation from NBC, will have its world premiere there. "The filmmakers had unparalleled access to a late-night host as he was making a major transition in his life," Pierson said, adding that the festival this year received 1,700 submissions for 130 feature-film slots.

Two more docs making their world premieres in Austin are "It's About You," a chronicle of John Mellencamp's summer 2009 tour, directed by photographer Kurt Markus and his son, Ian; and "Square Grouper," a portrait of Miami’s 1970s pot-smuggling scene.

Paul_Universal PicturesOther films announced Thursday are geared to Austin's genre-friendly audiences. "The Innkeepers," Ti West's ghost story about two hotel clerks who set out to prove the place they work is haunted, will have its world premiere, and "Paul," a Universal Pictures comedy in which Simon Pegg and Nick Frost embark on a road trip to the U.S.' UFO heartland, will play for North American audiences for the first time.

These films join SXSW's previously announced 2011 opening-night film, "Source Code," directed by Duncan Jones and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The rest of the festival's lineup will be announced in early February.

-- Rebecca Keegan


Photos, from top: Mel Gibson in "The Beaver." Credit: Summit Entertainment. "Paul." Credit: Universal Pictures

Experience the intensity of running Hood to Coast, with none of the blisters

January 10, 2011 |  2:39 pm

Hood To Coast_Struggle

To an outsider, nothing about the Hood to Coast relay makes sense. Starting with 12,000 runners -- a mixture of seasoned vets and flabby novices -- the world's largest relay stretches through 197 miles of hellish roller-coaster terrain, tree-lined mountain passes, dark valleys and a crowded city, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Sleeping is a luxury. Comfort is virtually nonexistent. Prize money for winning? Nope, nada.

Yet somehow this painful test of adrenaline and stamina has remained a Portland, Ore., tradition since 1982 (it's now in it's 30th year), drawing teams of runners from all over the world to the top of Mt. Hood, where the race begins. If you're curious about the event but don't want to get blisters yourself, then get yourself to a movie theater on Tuesday night for the independent documentary "Hood to Coast." The film is playing at 14 theaters across Los Angeles and Orange County, including Regal Cinemas' L.A. Live Stadium 14 downtown and in IMAX at the AMC Burbank 16 in Burbank.

Opening nationwide for one night only in 350 theaters, the film follows four teams chosen to participate in the ordeal (which is touted by its sponsor, OfficeMax, as "The Mother of All Relays").

For the runners highlighted in the documentary, the process of enduring such an unnatural challenge is a sweaty, bloody, tiresome quest for camaraderie.

"It carries a special thing," said producer Anna Campbell, a veteran Hood to Coast runner whose husband, Christoph Baaden, co-directed the film with Marcie Hume. "People are there for each other in a way that people often aren’t." "Hood to Coast" marks the directorial and producing debut of Baaden, Campbell and Hume.

The Tuesday screenings will include interviews from a red-carpet screening in Portland as well as a recorded panel discussion with professional runners. Baaden says the idea behind the limited opening was to give participants and fans of the race from all 50 states the chance to see it.

Of the hundreds of runners that volunteered to be filmed participating in the 2008 relay (typically held  the weekend before Labor Day weekend), four teams were included. In the end, the teams Dead Jocks in a Box, Heart 'N' Sole, Thunder and Laikaning and R. Bowe embodied the diverse, triumphant and comical soul of the race, even if they didn't know it at first.

Jason Baldwin, 29, ran as the pink-haired mascot of Thunder and Laikaning -- a humorous bunch of Portland animators. He admits he was surprised by the directors' interest in his tribe of unfit goofballs who entered the race on a whim with zero marathon experience.

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SXSW 2010: 'Tiny Furniture' the big winner in Austin

March 17, 2010 |  1:16 pm


The South by Southwest Film Festival jury has handed "Tiny Furniture," Lena Dunham's story about the  listless post-graduation life of a woman in her 20s, its narrative feature prize and also given Dunham its breakout award of "emergent narrative woman director."

"Tiny Furniture," in which Dunham also stars, has the main character walking a minefield of self-esteem issues and romantic complications in her post-college years. The crisply shot film costars Dunham's real-life mother and sister and was shot largely in their family's New York City apartment.

The festival on Tuesday also awarded a special jury prize for best ensemble to "Myth of the American Sleepover," directed by David Robert Mitchell, with an award for individual performance going to Brian Hasenfus for his role in Garth Donovan's "Phillip the Fossil."

Jeff Malmberg's "Marwencol" won the documentary feature prize at the festival, with a runner-up award  handed to "War Don Don," directed by Rebecca Richman Cohen. Audience prizes were given to the documentary "For Once in My Life," directed by Jeff Bingham and Mark Moormann, and the narrative feature "Brotherhood," directed by Will Canon.

With her modern-day, Elaine May-esque mix of anxiety, humor and insight, Dunham grew this year into just the kind of fresh voice SXSW seems designed to spotlight. The prize for "Tiny Furniture" was also validation for the self-nurturing system of SXSW; Dunham met many of her key collaborators on the project while attending the festival with her film "Creative Nonfiction" last year.

"Marwencol" tells the story of Mark Hogancamp, an upstate New York man who suffers debilitating brain damage after a bar fight. As a means of physical and emotional therapy, he creates an intricately detailed scale of a WWII-era Belgian town in his backyard. As the world of the miniature town takes on a life of its own in Hogancamp's imagination, his photographs of his handiwork begin to garner attention in the art world. Malmberg's documentary generated buzz after its first screening over the weekend, with attendees feverishly handing about copies of a book of Hogancamp's photos.

The film centers on a strong subject and builds a balanced structure around him, as Malmberg carefully introduces viewers to Hogancamp and his world, creating a delicate sense of understanding and empathy.

— Mark Olsen

Photo: Laurie Simmons and Lena Dunham in "Tiny Furniture." Credit: SXSW


SXSW 2010: 'MacGruber wows them in Austin

SXSW 2010: Saturday night's all right for writing

SXSW 2010: The case isn't made against George Lucas

SXSW 2010: 'MacGruber' wows them in Austin

March 16, 2010 | 11:27 am

At the MacGruber premiere at SXSW Monday night, director Jorma Taccone noted that there was still some postproduction work to be done, “but it's going to be good, you guys." The audience couldn’t have agreed more resoundingly.

It’s a minor miracle “MacGruber” even exists. A parody featuring a "MacGyver"-esque action hero who tries to defuse bombs with household items (and generally fails), the movie grew out of an unassuming "Saturday Night Live" skit after said skit became an online sensation.

Writers Taccone (himself a veteran of the viral-video sensation Lonely Island), John Solomon and Will Forte were able to come up with a storyline from only the barest bit of source material. Not that it matters.

The film plays as a loving parody/homage to '80s action films, full of ridiculous montages -- love-making, getting ready to fight, etc. -- a soft-rock soundtrack and ironic sense of self-seriousness.  There is something wonderfully daft about the film's sense of randomness as it takes ridiculous lines of dialogue (mostly unprintable here) and builds them into outrageous running gags.

It’s not spoiling anything to say that things explode a lot, to the delight of the SXSW audience. When the final countdown began at the film's climax -- with the skit's signature line, "Three minutes, MacGruber!" -- it brought down the house. 

The story, to the extent that it matters, finds MacGruber (Will Forte) trying to stop his longtime nemesis (Val Kilmer) from launching a stolen nuclear missile at Washington. There is a lot of talk about getting codes, little of it of actual consequence.

Cast members Forte, Kristen Wiig, Ryan Phillippe and Kilmer all came out for the screening. When taking the stage after the movie, Taccone asked if Kilmer was still there. Realizing the actor was not coming on stage, Taccone quoted a line from the movie: "Classic." (Prior to the screening, the director had noted of Phillippe, "I'm still very confused as to why he agreed to be in the movie.") Taccone and Phillippe also both noted that the film was shot in only 28 days, a remarkably tight schedule for an action comedy.

One questioner asked what became of a rumored cameo from Richard Dean Anderson, of course the original MacGyver. There’s talk of a lawsuit from Lee Zlotoff, the original creator of "MacGyver," and Taccone said the original script did feature a scene for MacGruber's father, but that it was cut.
"And that's all I'll say about that," Taccone added. Classic.

--Mark Olsen

Photo: From left, Ryan Phillipe, Will Forte and Kristen Wiig in "MacGruber." Credit: Greg Peters / Rogue Pictures

SXSW 2010: 'Saturday Night's' all right for writing

March 15, 2010 |  1:40 pm


There were long lines and plenty of reported turn aways for the Sunday night premiere of "Saturday Night," James Franco's documentary about the making of an episode of "Saturday Night Live."

The hyphenate himself was not in attendance, but he did send along a video to introduce the film. In the video, Franco pointed out that his movie began as a film-school assignment to make a five-minute short on "Saturday Night Live" cast member Bill Hader but grew into a "Maysles brothers-style observational documentary."

Franco said it was "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels who suggested a longer project, while noting that Michaels also said he had once turned down acclaimed documentarians Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker from making a documentary during the show's early days. "I guess there was more to hide [back then]," Franco surmised.

"Saturday Night" is a strange and frustrating document because it succeeds partly at what it sets out to do: examine the making of an episode of "SNL." But it also requires a lot of reading between the lines. Franco did get access to many of the key moments of the creation of the Dec. 6, 2008, show, hosted by John Malkovich -- including the initial pitch meeting, the writing process and the all-important table read (where it is decided what will make it onto the show) -- but there is something essentially compromised about the effort.

Franco, who has previously hosted "SNL," spends most of his time with Hader, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg, and it's tough not to feel they're just his buddies humoring him. Cast members Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Abby Elliott, Kenan Thompson and others are glimpsed only briefly, and so, perhaps unwittingly, Franco winds up portraying "SNL" as an impenetrable boy's club.  (On a similar note, cast member Casey Wilson, who has since been let go from the show, expresses her intense anxiety about not being good enough after a sketch idea bombs at the table read.) Franco gets his points in, but in portraying a frat-house chumminess he misses what are surely more complex power dynamics.

Franco's voice can sometimes be heard from off-screen, and there is a bluntness to his questions, as if he was trying to dig deeper than his subjects were letting him go. Some of the best insights -- and for comedy nerds there is still a lot here of interest -- come from moments when Franco smokes a cigarette with longtime producer Steve Higgins (now the announcer on Jimmy Fallon's late-night show). Maybe three-quarters of the way through, Franco uses footage from an interview with Michaels. The "SNL" creator points out that putting cameras in the room with performers always warps the situation. There is something wonderfully droll about the ease with which Michaels dismisses Franco's documentary even as it's being made, almost implying that by definition it cannot be an accurate portrait of what goes on at "SNL." Given the finished product, it's hard to disagree.

--Mark Olsen

Photo: A sketch on "Saturday Night Live." Credit: NBC


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