Tuesday, March 20, 2012

SxSW: The Paramount Theater

Every state capitol in the Union has to have a legitimate theater. A big one, where the road companies of major Broadway shows can come and entertain the elite. Such a place is the Paramount, a fine old palace dating back a century or so, located about ten blocks south of the State capitol building.

The place is huge, and decorated with faux art nouveau paintings and looking exactly like it should: A movie palace par excellence. This is why all SxSW’s gala premiers take place here.

Cabin in the Woods

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods opened the festival and well it should. This is a really good theological action comedy, and possibly Whedon’s best work to date.

What do I mean by “theological?” You’ll just have to see the movie to find out. The title refers to the stereotypical dwelling, where a standard bunch of college students (Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Chris Hemsworth, Jesse Williams and Fran Kranz) are forced to battle the forces of evil (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford)….or do they?

This is one of the most self-referential horror films since Scream One, playing up on each and every movie cliché in the history of genre to hilarious effect. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of scares here too, but this is an action comedy, and Whedon, who gave us the likes of Buffy and Firefly, is a master of those.

The film careens from jokes to scares with wild abandon, and we’re not sure where this thing is going, but the ride is too fun to care much, and when we finally get to the climax, which is totally mind-blowing, we’re almost totally exhausted as the protagonists are supposed to be. Think of Westworld meets Scooby Doo.

Blue Like Jazz

Director Steve Taylor’s latest opus is a theological coming of age movie and as such is too cute by half.

What do I mean by “theological?” it means that God is discussed ad nauseum. It’s all about region and what it means, and while it pretends to come from a free thinking atheist perspective, it’s as pious as an afterschool special on the Pope Channel.

According to the blurb, Don (Marshall Allman), a nineteen-year-old sophomore at a Texas junior college, tries to escape his Bible belt upbringing for life in the Pacific Northwest at the “most godless campus in America.”

Well, it ain’t. It’s a right-wing parody of the “most godless campus in America” and isn’t that good a depiction. The characters are all cardboard cutouts, and the edges aren’t all that well cut out either. It tries to have some Animal House moments, but while it comes close once in a while, it cannot shake that piety that Don and the film are so dead set on rebelling against. The ending is broadcast well before the middle of the film, and despite what we fervently hope, it gets there, ug.

SxSW: The Alamo Drafthouse

Sixth Street between Congress and I-35 is what might be called an essential tourist trap. There is nothing but bars, souvenir shops and pizzerias. It’s Austin’s version of Bourbon Street, and it’s one of those places where if you don’t like country music or alcohol it’s best to stay away from. It’s in this milieu that sits the Alamo Drafthouse duplex movie theater, the greatest such venue in all of Texas and perhaps the entire south.

The place is a drive-in without the cars. They have decent seats and waitresses serving food, full meals, and they have something resembling tables, so you can’t spill your dinner on your lap, but that’s not the half of it. The theater has the best trailers in the Country. These are old ones from flicks that they’re not going to show, ancient cartoons, some of which were commercials from the days when great grandma was a little girl, and music videos from before the term was invented.

I was so engrossed that I was hoping they wouldn’t turn them off for the film until the end of the short or whatever snippet they were playing…but of course they did. They always do.

The Code of the West

Rebecca Richman Cohen’s latest documentary is on the fall of legal medical Marijuana in Montana. There was a referendum on the subject in 2010, and it passed with an overwhelming margin, but some people didn’t like that, so there was an immediate repeal campaign in the legislature, “for the children” of course.

…and because this was 2011, when the Right fringe of the Republican Party was in charge of everything, it was to some extent. We follow the bill as it goes through both houses and gets vetoed by the governor before being reborn in almost as lethal form. The film is well done, but the point of view; it’s very pro medical marijuana kind of gets in the way. This won’t get anywhere.


Nir Paniry’s sci-fi psychological exploration of how memory works is mostly about a maguffin: A machine that puts our hero Tom’s (Sasha Roiz) consciousness into the brain of a convicted murderer (Dominic Bogart). Tom is a phantom in this other guy’s head with no one to talk to but the voice of the machine (Sara Tomko), which was supposed to have been turned off after it malfunctioned four years before.

We know Tom’s going to get back into his own body eventually, but that would be too easy. Unfortunately, the twists and turns are somewhat predictable and mostly tedious. The psychological stuff is interesting, and when Tom and his host actually manage to communicate with each other, it’s somewhat satisfying, but this ends up as nothing more than direct-to-video territory, which is kind of sad.

SxSW: The Violet Crown Theater

Outside the restricted area to the east of Congress Street there are several theaters that are part of the film festival; unfortunately, only one is within walking distance. There was supposed to have been a shuttle bus between the convention center and the Alamo Lamar multiplex, but whenever I took a look, it wasn’t there. A couple of others were miles and miles away, and didn’t have the promise of a shuttle bus, so I ignored them. That left the Violet Crown Cinema (434 W 2nd St) a tiny venue with four microscopic screening rooms and a concession stand six blocks west of the Convention Center.

I had an express ticket for a documentary on the history of the Sunset Strip in LA, which is going to celebrate it’s centennial this year, so getting there a half an hour early was clearly an option. However, when I got there, I was told that the theater was full. But it wasn’t. They had decided that the line was long enough, and even though I was supposed to be able to cut in the front of the line, they decided it wouldn’t be very nice to the people who had gotten there earlier. However, they did put me first on the waiting list. After stewing a while (I waited a hell of a long time early in the morning to get the damn thing) I was told there were a few free seats, and on getting in, I was shocked to discover the place slightly more than half full.

I hate when that happens.

Hans Fjellestad’s Sunset Strip is a straightforward history of what for the most part is Los Angeles’ main drag, from it’s beginnings as a glorified cowpath a century ago, through it’s glory days in the 1930s through the ‘50s, and it’s brief decline and revival in the mid ‘60s and various declines and revivals since. The interviews get more and more diverse as the filmmaker manages to find more people who aren’t dead. Still we learn lots about places like the Garden of Allah (who was an actress, not the Muslim God) and the "House of Francis," the classiest brothel in all California, before going on to places like Ciro’s and it’s successor, the Comedy Cellar.

With a cast that encompasses all Hollywood in all it’s eras, this film cannot help but fascinate. The closing credits recapitulate he entire film in animation, which is almost as good as the rest of the film.

The “Vimeo” Theater

Vimeo is a video-sharing website which has paid good money to put it’s name on the makeshift theater on the ground floor of the Convention Center. As the second largest venue of the festival, it’s supposed to be the home of some of the more popular films. It didn’t really seem that way, as all I saw on the menu were documentaries. Still, the ones that I saw were somewhat good….

The Central Park Effect

I know something about the birds in New York City. We got the toughest pigeons in the world here. They like to beat up on the seagulls, which are why you rarely see the latter, although in the winter they try to take the streets. But that’s not what this film is actually about. It seems that in Central park, every other species of bird, most of whom are migratory, either visit of live there, the only large place rural enough to be a decent habitat.

Jeffrey Kimball’s documentary tells the story of the parks fauna for a year and quarter, both the birds and bird watchers are profiled, the latter far more than the former, and they make an interesting subculture. The cinematography is excellent, and we get to see dozens of species that few knew were there. In fact we only spy a couple of pigeons. This is either going to show up on NYC public television or nowhere.

Beauty is Embarrassing

Neil Berkeley’s profile of artist Wayne White is one of those films that are either fascinating or boring as Hell depending on whether or not you like the subject.

Now White and his wife Mimi Pond have lived somewhat interesting lives. She was a famous underground cartoonist back in the day, and he was one of the top designers on the old Pee-wee's Playhouse TV show and won three Emmys® for it. He then did a few notable projects before going into fine art. Some of what he did was interesting, and the part about Pee-wee certainly grabbed one’s attention, but for the most part, it wasn’t overwhelming. His current work is cute, but not great, and my thumb was itching to change the channel, which is something I couldn’t do in the theater.

sxsw '12 one.

The South by Southwest Film Festival and Interactive and Music Conferences (SxSW), is now in it’s final phase. The interactive section is over, and that means the film section has been kicked out of most of its non-theatrical venues, hanging on like a ghost for the better part of a week. The awards have been given (I didn’t see any of them) already thus disqualifying a few dozen films from getting one.

That’s why I’m not there anymore. I was there for a week in Austin mostly in a small area between I-35 and Congress Avenue east and west and Second and Seventh north and south, where 80% of the screenings were. The DVD library, which was supposed to be open the entire time, was closed, dammit!!! I couldn’t even see a few shorts the last day.

It was a sad ending to what, in fact, was a pretty good festival. I saw about 15 films during my stay there, ate lots of free food, and got into one pane (more on that later). Generally par for the course…

One of the big problems was one of my own making, I booked my hotel a bit late, and there was nothing in my price range anywhere nearby, so I had to stay at a Motel 6 about eight miles from downtown, fortunately, there was a bus stop a few blocks away, so if I got out of bed at the right time, I could actually get right there without waiting for the better part of an hour something that happened once. I was luckier most of the other days.

Most of action is supposed to be at the Convention Center, on 4th and Natches, where you get tickets for pretty much everything, they have a two day trade show, and a whole bunch of …hell it’s a con, and that means there’s plenty of panels and such on techie stuff. It was here a few years back that they announced the invention of Twitter, and there was all sorts of people giving out advertising swag for apps of every kind. But I wasn’t all that interested in that, I was there for the movies, and to some extent the music.

The film section had about a hundred and thirty movies, most of which were features. For some reason my schedule forced me to concentrate on documentaries, and of which there were all kinds. From the history of the Sunset Strip, to tributes to dead ventriloquists to whatever happened to the legendary Paul Williams.

On the scripted side, there were the usual Indies plus a few studio films that somehow missed a proper release or were sidetracked and spent years on shelves before being finished. There was also 21 Jump Street. We’ll get to all that later.

I didn’t manage to see any of the shorts this time out. There just wasn’t time.

My schedule was simple: Get up. Spend 40 minutes to get downtown, Free food, check emails, more free food, a screening, more free food, another screening. More free food, yet another screening, and maybe a screening after that before getting back on the bus for the 40 minute ride home. It works.

Libya before the war part one

Sometime last October; I got an email from a company I’ve never heard of called Bestway tours. I had apparently met them at a trade fair and had complained that the Libyan government had been discriminating against American tourists since we had reestablished relations in 2003.
Well, after 7 years, the State Department had finally gotten Gaddafi to issue visas to American tourists, and Bestway was going to be one of the first to send a group over…would I want to go?
Of course I would! One of the things on my bucket list was to circumnavigate the Mediterranean, and you can’t do that without going through Libya. Besides, the lure of the forbidden called to me. This was going to be really expensive, but dammit, this might be my only chance. Looking back. It very well might have been.
So I took it.
Already, it seemed there were problems. First there was the visa. Libya had announced that they were going to start issuing visas on a number of occasions in pervious years, and they always reneged at the last minute. This was even more troubling when I was told that we wouldn’t know whether or not we would get them until only three days before we were due to take off. This spooked quite a number of the group. The large number of people who originally expressed interest began to drop out. I didn’t know how many until I got there.
I got the visa over the Internet. It wasn’t like those you usually get from other countries that is pasted or stamped on your passport. No, it was a large document in closely spaced Arabic (they provided a translation), that I had to show again and again to the various airline people to prove I actually was going to get into the country legally.
After a stopover that was just short enough so that I couldn’t get out of the airport, I finally got to Tripoli. I flattered myself into thinking I was going to be the first American tourist to get in, in seven years. Nope. Two people were ahead of me on line. I got through customs with little trouble, and met my guide, an elderly gentleman named Mohammed. Then I found out how big my tour group was.
There was me and this other guy. That’s it. Of the 15 people who were going to go, 13 chickened out. Fortunately they didn’t charge me extra for the single supplement.
So there were four of us: Me, Mohammed, the other guy, who’s name was Bobby, and our driver. It was going to be a surreal experience.
Libya had a surprisingly large tourist industry. Once you’re there it’s not hard to see why. The south coast of the Mediterranean was the nicest place in the Roman World, and they, and the Greeks and Phoenicians before them had done a humongous amount of building before the great tsunami of 365 AD turned everything to rubble.
Then the Vandals came, and then the Byzantines took it, and then the Arabs. The tribal Berbers gave up on civilization, and no one really cared about the ruins enough to use them as a quarry. So you have a bunch of some of the best-preserved Roman cities there are. Gadaffi’s sons had decided that luxury tourism can be profitable and gives the country a good image. So except for Americans, rich archeology fans were welcomed with open arms. Ports were built nearby so that cruise ships could dock and dump lots of money on the Gaddafi family, which would trickle down to the locals.
Bobby and I would take the standard, authorized tour of the archeological sites.