SXSW Film 2016 Day 3: ‘Tower’, ‘American Fable’, Nicolas Cage And More

Today I lived in a magically murderous bubble, sticking mostly to one theater as I was presented gem after gem. I hob knobbed with the celebs, I ate all the snacks, and I made friends with each and every volunteer as we exchanged notes on whether or not we had found an acceptable horror flick yet. After today, there’s an army of SXSW volunteers ready to storm the theaters looking for these films during their precious breaks. -Danielle Houtkooper

Documentary Film

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Tower

[rating=8.00]

50 years ago a sniper took the University of Texas campus hostage, changing the atmosphere as we knew it while carving out a name for himself in history. The beauty of Tower lies in the treatment of that name, and its insignificance in regards to the survivors who feared the monster behind the name as he attempted to pick them off one by one on a summer afternoon. Using rotoscopic animation, clips from the Texas archives, live interviews, and present day conflict, there’s an unwavering magic that took hold of the screen as the story unfolded. The actors chosen to depict each survivor played perfectly to the horror that no one realized they were experiencing until they were in the midst of it. Disconcerting and surreal, we watch the events unfold as they happen, and as each shot is fired we see the light fleeting from their psyche. The simplistic approach behind the animation technique gives you a starting point in which your imagination (or memories) have a place to plant and flourish. There’s a genuine fury in which the story is driven home, taking care to tread lightly in the cement shoes the subject matter has been given as it sat in history. 16 dead, 30 more injured, and nothing to do but watch as their tormentor became engrained in the public’s mind. It’s quietly powerful, original, and effective.

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American Fable

[rating=8.00]

Presented as a perfectly classic tale, American Fable paints itself into a corner as the farming, working class family struggles to make a life for themselves during the Reagan era when land was being bought up cheaper than bad stocks and once profitable farmers are literally swinging from the rafters, lost on what to do next. But just when the standard becomes comfortable, we get a glimpse into a Guillermo Del Toro-esque magical reality where our main character Gitty is a reluctant dreamer. She’s firmly planted in reality, aware of her circumstances, with one eye on escape and the other tittering between what she wishes and what she knows. During a childhood expedition with the neighboring children, Gitty finds herself treading unknown waters wandering into a forbidden section of the farm. Just as she’s convinced the excitement is all in her head, a quick movement in the old silo catches her eye. A man is stuck down there, alone and afraid. A kinship quickly develops between the two of them, and as Gitty’s imagination continues to flourish, her childhood comes to an abrupt end due to the mistakes of her family. Magic, sociopathy, friendship, terror, fear, and love all play heavily into the film. By the end things are nowhere near where they began, and we just as those old American Tales taught us lessons, we learn how important trust can be.

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I Am Not a Serial Killer

[rating=10.00]

Possibly the most interesting, if not best film presented so far at the fest, I Am Not a Serial Killer depicts the drama behind a sociopath’s needs versus restraint as he navigates the perils of his quickening potential career path. Convinced he’s destined to become a murderer, young John Wayne Cleaver sets himself a specific list of rules (ala Dexter), keeping impulses at bay long enough to make it to the next day. As his urges grow stronger, he finds himself in the middle of a serial killer rampage. The thrill engulfs his senses, taking hold of his every thought as he begins to hunt down the murderer. The truth both horrifies and delights him, and as he learns more about this person’s life and techniques, it begins to drive him mad. Max Records makes the jump from child actor to *almost* adult with a deafening jolt, matching established talent Christopher Lloyd moment for moment throughout the picture. Not only is the story (adapted from a novel of the same name) intricate and unique, but the whole thing is shot on film, giving a wholly real feel to each moment that’s solely seen in horror flicks of days long ago.

—–

Like Danielle, I hung out in a single theater today, though without the murderous undertones, thanks mostly to the company I got to keep with some of my online colleagues. Though the third day of standing is starting to wear heavy on my knees, and I’m sporting my first real SXSunburn, but the lineup of films continues to be impressive. So… here’s a closer look at that last thing I said. -Christian Long

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The Trust

[rating=8.00]

This is going to be a hard movie to explain to people, and not just because Nicolas Cage is in it. Though the fact that Nicolas Cage is in it won’t make the task of explaining it any easier. It’s being billed as a black comedy, but that’s not entirely accurate. It’s a heist flick about two cops who work in the evidence room of the Las Vegas Police Department who stumble across some information that leads them to believe there’s stash of money located in a safe in some non-descript building.

This is enough to convince Officer Jim Stone (Cage) that his best shot at an early retirement is to break into that safe and steal its contents. For help, he recruits David Waters (Elijah Wood), who’s convinced that none of this is a good idea in any way, until he’s bullied into compliance out of sheer resentment for his job. Once the heist is underway, the film slowly builds tension as increasingly unforeseen scenarios as they continue to present themselves.

I got a chance to speak with the co-writer, Adam Hirsch (who wrote the script with co-director Benjamin Brewer) before the screening about what went into constructing a unique story framed inside a conventional heist movie.

“We obviously want to carve out our own thing, but [Benjamin Brewer and I] are such big fans of those old 1970s Don Siegel movies, that and All The President’s Men was a big influence insofar as [the characters] using information through visual aids about how you kind of trace a case. There it was about Watergate, here it’s like, what if you have equally smart guys who are looking into robbing someone, and how do you build a film from that. We also used MASH as a way to combine these comedic and dramatic elements. Films like that that were really gritty and original in their own right that we wanted to pay homage to, and do them right. ”

Hirsch’s comparisons, it turns out, help in zeroing in on a way of explaining exactly what this film is “like.” Put simply, The Trust is an off-kilter crime drama infused with a real vintage aesthetic lifted straight from a dialogue-heavy heyday that helped re-define an old genre while creating a new one. With that, we’re thrown into a claustrophobic Las Vegas blanketed in concrete parking lots and non-descript buildings, along with a soundtrack with no contemporary music and a very minimal score that has a real uncomfortable familiarity to it.

What people will most like walk away with, however, are the Cage-isms. While he’s nowhere near the over-the-top gusto that’s become his trademark over the last several years, he certainly has fun playing up Stone’s eccentricities, which Hirsch himself said were brought to the forefront a bit by Cage as a performer. These moments include him gulping lemon slices drenched in Tabasco and acting like a cat coughing up a hairball when his favorite cheesesteak place changes the recipe, even though he ultimately approves of the taste.

Little by little, his moral bankruptcy starts to reveal itself, and Waters’ “what the fuck have I gotten myself into” vibe spills out from the screen into the audience, until you’re left wondering what his true intentions are in all this.

In the end, it proves to be a masterfully crafted slow-burn that chooses not to reveal everything that’s going on, even at the very abrupt ending. One that deserves to stand on its own merit, separately from a mentality of this being another movie where Nic Cage acts weird.

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Don’t Think Twice

[rating=10.00]

Comedy gadfly Mike Birbiglia wrote, directed, and stars in the story of a New York improv troupe who suddenly find themselves facing an uncertain future once word that the building that houses their theater has been sold. The extremely talented, star-studded cast play off one another like a true ensemble, as they ruminate on ideas on measuring success, and the limit that one can (or should) put on chasing their dreams.

Of course, being a film about an improv troupe, the question on everyone’s mind — at least on the red carpet beforehand — was how much of the film was scripted. I was able to talk to Keegan Michael-Kay, who plays Jack, about how this all came together.

“A lot of the improvisation in the movie is real, and it’s just the way it’s edited together, there are moments in the film — and I’ve never done anything like this before, so it was interesting — there are improv sets in the movie that are written. Then there are other improv sets that are improv sets that were purely improvised and Michael [Birbiglia] has found a way, which I can’t wait to see, to splice them together so that you guys get the sense that it feels real.

He also addressed this idea of Birbiglia’s ‘scripted improv,’ and how to strike a balance between staying true to both his script, and to the art-form of improvisation itself.

“In some of the improv sets, for the story to move forward, it’s very interesting. So we had to learn how to act –”

Note: At this point, Key was asked by co-star Tami Sagher “What was the butt song mike?” This, of course, led to an improv red carpet duet that went something like this:

(to the tune of “Shortnin Bread”)

Miles doesn’t know his own butt strength, butt strength

Miles doesn’t know his own butt

Miles doesn’t know his own butt strength, butt strength

Miles doesn’t know his own butt

After lamenting that he didn’t remember any of the verses that went along with the chorus, he dove right back into our interview.

“–so [Mike Birbiglia] would say ‘Just do whatever you want to do, but make sure you say this exactly three minutes in. He’s say ‘Say whatever words you want, but don’t have to replicate what you did before, but you just have to get to this exact point and say this exact line. So you’re literally improvising, but still, in your brain you’re going ‘Okay, but here’s where we have to say ‘the thing.’”

To Birbiglia’s credit, he absolutely pulls it off, and the film never once loses this unique, off-the-cuff feeling. What’s most impressive, however, is how it’s able to make you want to run out and start practicing improv while simultaneously reexamining your life. It’s poignant without being heavy-handed, and uplifting without any rose-colored exaggerations of what it means to find a balance between success and happiness. Though what really makes it work are the little details sprinkled throughout, the spaces they live in, the outdated computers, and the group’s backstage rituals, including a carved wooden bear, that make it so authentic. All of which make the heavy-hearted moments resonate that much more.

Check out our coverage of SXSW Film DAY 1 and DAY 2! 

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