As the sun set in Austin, Texas last evening, another successful SXSW came to a close. The streets geared up for a final night of revelry before the boring nature of reality descended once more and we all woke up, hung over and exhausted from our week-and-a-half long bacchanal. While Neil Ferguson lurked the clubs and venues of Austin to catch the greatest musical acts of this year’s festival, I braved the long lines and endless waiting at area movie theaters in order to check out the best and most exciting new movements in cinema.
Per usual, SXSW Film offered a plethora of delights for lovers of film, with over 150 movies making their premiere (world, North American, or American) at the festival. With so many to check out, it’s impossible for one man to catch them all. Undeterred by the odds against me, I made it this year’s mission to see as many as I could before I passed out from exhaustion. All day every day, I stood in line and braved the elements, taking in film after film at theaters across the city in my effort to catch the best of the best.
There were a few duds, to be sure, but mostly I was impressed by the festival’s output this year. SXSW is famous for offering a wide array of films, from cutesy rom-coms to heavy hitting drama to midnight movie classics to documentaries. I let no genre deter me as I embarked on my journey through Austin; the best way to enjoy SXSW, after all, is with complete openness. Discovery is part of the fun at South by, which makes it easier to enjoy seeing movies you might normally ignore completely. Of all the movies I saw, a few stick out in my mind as favorites…
Speaking purely subjectively, this was the best film at the festival. Oh sure, there were better movies and more important films to be seen, but Deathgasm, the first full length from filmmaker Jason Lei Howden, is one of those once-in-a-decade movies that feels destined to become a cult-classic for years to come. The movie follows the adventures of two metalhead outcasts, Brodie and Zakk (Milo Cawthorne and James Blake, respectively), as they suffer the indignities of being metal fans in a small New Zealand village. Our two “brothers of steel” form a band—called DEATHGASM (all caps to prove they’re not pussies)—with their slightly lame, Dungeons and Dragons playing friends, and have their sights set on taking the metal world by storm. All of this changes, however, when they happen upon some ancient sheet music. Thinking it would be absolutely metal to incorporate the music into their songs, they play it in the garage only to discover it has the power to summon a powerful demon whose minions begin to possess the citizens of their small town. Now, it’s up to Brodie and Zakk to stop the demon onslaught and save the world.
“Charming” feels like a weird description for a movie called Deathgasm but charming is what it is. Sure there’s gore and violence and a scene were a possessed woman gets impaled through the head with a giant vibrator (honestly, how has no one ever thought of that before?!) but it’s also hilarious and unabashedly fun. It’s like Shaun of the Dead meets Evil Dead 2 meets the remake of Evil Dead. It’s not a movie for everyone, but it was never meant to be. It’s the movie that every 14-year-old kid sitting in their room listening to the black metal albums they’ve hidden from their parents has longed to see. If you’re into that sort of thing, keep Deathgasm on your radar. It’s slated for release later this year and you don’t want to miss it.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I need to admit that I was lukewarm on Turbo Kid while I was watching it and immediately after. As the days wore on, however, I found my mind drifting back to this wild and imaginative film. Scenes kept popping back into my head, and more and more I found myself discussing it with fellow moviegoers in line. It follows the adventures of a lone, comic-book-obsessed adolescent, called The Kid (Munro Chambers), as he makes his way through a barren wasteland in a post-apocalyptic future in the distant year of 1997. Along the way, he makes friends with a mysterious and weirdly upbeat young girl named Apple (Laurence Leboeuf). When Apple falls afoul of the local warlord, Zeus (Michael Ironside), it’s up to The Kid, armed with an experimental weapon he just happens to come across and his trusty BMX bike, to save his friend and the rest of the survivors from their malevolent leader.
Turbo Kid plays out like a cheesy 80’s BMX movie meets Mad Max meets Mega Man and is mostly an homage to grindhouse. Despite its cute-sounding name, it’s a hyper-violent romp that would make Quentin Tarantino alternately blush and squeal with delight. Geysers of blood erupt from all injuries, no matter how slight, and people are routinely dismembered and/or disemboweled. It also happens to be kind of adorable. At its core, it’s a coming of age story. The Kid navigates the same perils of adolescence we all do—first crushes, leaving behind childish notions, standing up to bullies—it’s just that his adolescence is post-apocalyptic. Turbo Kid is a delightful throwback that might be difficult for some to appreciate but is absolutely worth checking out.
7 Chinese Brothers
It’s not exactly a secret that Jason Schwartzman can pull off dry humor. It’s sort of what he’s built his entire career on and he does it arguably better than anyone else working in America today. With 7 Chinese Brothers, Schwartzman takes dry to Saharan levels and it’s absolutely glorious. Schwartzman plays Larry, another aimless 30-something who’s more than happy bouncing from job to job and drinking his nights away. He visits his grandmother (the incomparable Olympia Dukakis) when he can, but ultimately he has no goals and no ambition. Together with his dog (played by Schwartzman’s real life dog, who honestly steals the show) they get into a series of comic misadventures as Larry attempts to get his life together.
This is one of the hottest tickets in town. The buzz surrounding this film was so high that it was next to impossible to catch a seat even as the festival wore on. It wasn’t hard to see why. Writer/director Bob Byington has really come into his own with 7 Chinese Brothers and it stands to reason that he’ll be getting a lot more attention after this film. He’s proven himself to be quite adept at writing dry wit and his direction has found its stride. One can only hope that Byington continues his ascension; if he keeps going this direction then he’s sure to become a darling of the indie world.
Teen pregnancy is a well-worn subject for movies so it’s odd to see one that adds anything new to the conversation. Petting Zoo, the first full length movie from San Antonio filmmaker Micah Magee, manages to be a realistic and often heart-wrenching look at the perils of teen pregnancy without being preachy or judgmental. Layla (newcomer Devon Keller) comes from a broken home; she’s left her parent’s house and is living with her stoner boyfriend and his pot-selling brother and rarely wants anything to do with her conservative parents. By all appearances, she seems to fit the mold of poor white trash. Despite this, she gains admittance to the University of Texas and given a hefty scholarship thanks to her academic abilities. This all falls apart when it’s discovered she’s pregnant. She loses her boyfriend, her scholarship, and the normalcy of her teenage existence. Mostly on her own, Layla has to find a way to overcome her roadblocks and create a normal life for herself.
There’s a poignancy to Petting Zoo that’s absolutely undeniable. Unlike other movies that tackle teen pregnancy, Juno, for instance, Petting Zoo remains grounded with a sense of hyper-realism. While there were some amateurish moments they didn’t detract from the overall narrative or the film itself. Keller shines in her first role, bringing both vulnerability and strength to Layla. The drama manages to be heavy hitting without being over the top, a testament to Magee’s restraint as a writer and filmmaker. This is definitely a film to keep an eye out for and, if nothing else, portends great things for Magee and her future.
The Little Death
This Australian indie was the first film I caught at the festival. It would have been easy for it to fade away from my memory after seeing so many great movies but, throughout it all, it stuck with me. From Josh Lawson, best known in the States for bit roles in Anchorman 2, The Campaign, and House of Lies, The Little Death (a French colloquialism for orgasm) follows the sex-lives of five loosely connected couples who are coming to terms with the bizarre sexual fetishes of their partners. I don’t mean the normal bizarre fetishes like spanking or being tied up either. There’s the woman with a rape fantasy, a woman who discovers she can only climax if her partner is crying, and a man who gets so into the idea of role playing that sex becomes an elaborate production, complete with notes and direction.
Despite the overt sexual tone of the film, this is a story about the importance of communication. As each of the five tales unfolds, it becomes more and more apparent how much trouble could be avoided if each couple just sat down and discussed their desires with their partner. Of course, it’s a lucky thing they didn’t since their communicative failures result in pure hilarity for the audience. The couples go to increasingly complex lengths in order to find their little death, plotting for days in some cases to most effectively get their rocks off. The Little Death is front to back hilarious and a wonderful exploration of all the kinks that move the sexual world.