Michael Bergeron
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SXSW Film 2016 wrap

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SXSW, celebrating its 30th edition, has wrapped and once again I am looking at the films I saw versus the films I missed.

The afternoon of registration started with a trip to the Comcast hospitality suite. Personally, Comcast is the corporate Satan on my block but they do own Universal, which released many of my favorite films over the years, and they were handing out free espresso and right before they transmitted the SXSW Obama talk they brought in a dozen pizzas for the room with comfortable seating for over 100 attendees. The suite also had restaurant owner Danny Meyer (Union Square Café in NYC) giving a talk about his policy of no tipping. His staff’s wages are paid for by the cost of the meal alone, and the kitchen staff likewise enjoys advanced compensation.11412217_10153597384665958_6065637846142331567_o

Audience Award winners like Transpecos (Narrative Feature) and Tower (Documentary) were on my radar but not on my schedule. Tower also won the Jury Award for documentary, while the Jury narrative award was for The Arbalest. The latter film concerns a famous toy inventor and his obsession with one woman throughout his life.

Of the 14 films I experienced there wasn’t a single one that didn’t have something to recommend. That’s especially true for the opening night world premiere of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some.

Linklater has spent a lifetime watching and honoring films, so it’s little surprise that he’s picked up a few pointers along the way. Everybody Wants Some follows an ensemble of college students during the first weekend before classes. Imagine an Éric Rohmer film that quietly observes a bunch of kids partying for 72-hours straight. People talk, people drink, people smoke out, people get duct taped to the home run wall of a baseball stadium. An ensemble cast of unknowns (that will soon be getting a lot of offers) totally nails the feeling of living in the moment during some of the best days of life. Everybody Wants Some has hands down the best bong scene in a movie ever.

A portrait of the friendship between Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham forms the documentary The Bandit. Needham had been Reynolds’ stunt man in addition to many free-lance gigs. The doc helmed by Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) covers cultural history as well as the era when Smokey and the Bandit became a monster hit. Moss found General Motors footage of Needham being the first person to test an air bag. Some amazing footage from a late night talk show that Burt hosted in the 1970s has rarely been seen. At the Q&A for the film after its world premiere, as Reynolds sat down on stage a woman walked up and handed him her bra.

The North American premiere of Midnight Special (Warner Brothers, opens April 1) was packed to the rafters at the 1200 seat Paramount Theatre. Director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) has fashioned a combination road movie and modern sci-fi twist on John Carpenter’s Starman. A couple (Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst) protects their son, who is an alien, as they drive from West Texas through the Southeast on the way to a secret destination. Accompanied by a friend (Joel Edgerton), who drives in the middle of the night with the lights out while wearing night vision goggles, they avoid the military and a NSA scientist (Adam Driver). At the post-film Q&A, with the cast in attendance, Nichols was asked how if the son was an alien, what where the parents? Nichols responded that that was a legit question. “What you need to do, is when you are walking out of the movie tonight with your friends is to discuss that question for the rest of the night.”12829145_10153597385510958_7511138368997433378_o

John Michael McDonagh has wowed movie audiences with his parables of death The Guard and Calvary. Only his new film, War on Everyone, takes the concept of black comedy as he used it in his previous films but takes the tone down several notches to where the comedy is still dark but the film unwinds like a farce on buddy cop movies. Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård star as super corrupt cops in Albuquerque. Theo James (the Divergent series) plays the baddie. At one point, almost for no reason other than the fact that it’s time to move, the film takes place in Iceland. But the rest of the time this is a modern day Western set in the sandstone colors of New Mexico.

Sunday came early, what with the time one-hour-foreword shift. I hardly had time to notice that I was staying in a shitty motel.

FPH interviewed the director of the docu Orange Sunshine, William Kirkley, who spent nearly a decade working on the tale of the late 1960s drug dealing Brotherhood of Eternal Love. It was only in the last couple of years of production that he gained the trust of the main participants in the largest acid and drug cartel from the era of Free Love.

FilmStill-51The Brotherhood would literally travel to Germany with their families in tow, buy a VW bus and then drive to Afghanistan, yes then a tourist mecca. Once there, they would outfit the van with stashes for wall to wall hash and ship it back to California. The proceeds from the sale of hash were used to manufacture high grade LSD, which the brotherhood would give away for free. This was the scene in that time and Orange Sunshine captures that vibe. The doc recalls a time when drug dealing was altruistic and not a gross version of capitalism.

Eventually the members were busted and did serious time. This was 60-years ago and now the full story can be told.

At one point the Brotherhood paid the terrorist group Weather Underground 18K to bust Timothy Leary out of prison, where he was serving time on a manufacture marijuana bust. The film recounts the exact escape route from California to Canada and eventually to Algeria. Laguna Beach was a different community in the late-60s and Orange Sunshine shows the lay of the land, from the health food stores to the drug dealers.

The Trust gives Nicolas Cage a platform for his particular way of dramatic delivery. Cage and Elijah Wood are corrupt police in Las Vegas who plan and execute a master robbery of a highly guarded vault full of diamonds that happened to be owned by gangsters. Excellent direction from first time directors (and brothers) Ben and Alex Brewer.

Another first time director, Kasra Farahani, displayed professional chops in his mixing of the past and the present in The Waiting. James Caan stars as a lonely old man who becomes the subject of a brutal prank by some high school neighbors. Logan Miller and Keir Gilchrist (It Follows) wire his house with surveillance equipment as they try to convince Caan that his house is haunted.Don+t+Think+Twice+2016+SXSW+Music+Film+Interactive+TM3YDzhAYkbx

Yet another world premiere brought the cast of Don’t Think Twice to the stage of the Paramount Theatre. Writer/director Mike Birbiglia has made an exceptional dramedy about an improv troupe that begins to splinter as certain members achieve fame. The remarkable cast includes Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher. In a weird twist of fate, during the production, the cast found out that Birbiglia’s former improv teacher Liz Allen had bought her house from Jacob’s parents in Pittsburgh.

There’s a lot more to tell but I’ve got promises to keep and miles to go until I sleep. Mark your calendar for next year’s SXSW.

— Michael Bergeron