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SXSW 2010: Crying with Laughter, The Thorn in the Heart, and Cannibal Girls

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SXSW 2010: <em>Crying with Laughter</em>, <em>The Thorn in the Heart</em>, and <em>Cannibal Girls</em>

Crying with Laughter (Justin Molotnikov). Joey Frisk (a very capable Stephen McCole) is a fireball on the verge of flaming out. His vulgar, relentless standup comedy style seems to demand that he self-destruct in every area of his life, from his irresponsibility as a father to his unprofessionalism as a comedian. He precedes his acts with a ritualistic line of coke, walks out on stage swigging a beer, and unleashes at whoever he can spot in the dimly lit crowd.

The film begins as a surprisingly interesting study of Joey, a Scottish man incapable of pulling things together. He can’t help but mess things up with his landlord, his ex, and even the old schoolmate who tracks him down (Malcom Shields). But about 25 minutes in, another film begins and leaves this one behind, instantly transforming Crying with Laughter into a breezy “mystery” thriller with plot holes. When Joey spends the third act bloody, running, and saving the day while trying to reason with villains, it hits you: “Wait—how the heck did we end up here?” I yearned for the captivating character piece this film began as.

The Thorn in the Heart (Michel Gondry). Leave it to Michel Gondry to incorporate stop-motion and green-screen trickery into a personal documentary about a former teacher. His film, centering around his aunt Suzette Gondry, is being described as a very personal movie, but I sometimes had a hard time seeing that. These technical signatures make the film more “Michel Gondry,” but do they make the film more personal?

Yet, when it ended, the first description that popped into my head was “love letter.” Thorn in the Heart has a way of quietly shape-shifting like that. At any given moment it can be an ode to Suzette, the glue of the Gondry family, a reveal of the strained relationship between a mother, a son, and a father, or a retrospective of a teacher’s career.

Besides the visual effects mentioned above, Gondry assembles his film primarily through old Super 8 movies and his own rough footage. I say “rough” because Gondry refuses to clean up a lot of the inherent messiness that comes with the territory of filming with a small, mobile crew. In fact, he explores the opposite direction. The director includes some of his cues for Suzette to enter rooms (sometimes she doesn’t hear him, causing him to walk into shot to get her attention), and boom microphones are constantly in frame, prompting Gondry’s behind-the-camera instructions to “get the boom out!” This openness kind of lends to the openness of the subject. I wouldn’t guess it’s difficult to get much out of Suzette; she seems willing to talk about anything to anyone.

Except, perhaps, her own son, Jean-Yves. From what we can tell, they’re in a never-ending bout of the blame game, slinging tension, pain, and guilt between them. Perhaps the saddest (and possibly unintentional) point made about this mother-son relationship comes as the film concludes. Gondry forms a montage of loving shots of Suzette, including some of his own moments with his aunt, and you realize that this should have been Jean-Yves’s tribute, not Michel’s.

Cannibal Girls (Ivan Reitman). Ivan Reitman sent a message with his son Jason to give to the SXSW crowd: He knows Cannibal Girls is really, really terrible. One of the director’s earliest films, from 1973, its only goal these days is to live on as an astonishingly bad cult film. I’m sorry to say it doesn’t even reach that level.

Oh, the film is pretty terrible all right: painfully slow dissolves, topless cannibals, stiff acting, a plot that swerves in every direction. But a lot of it isn’t really funny, it’s just bad. Too dull and not nearly oblivious enough, the film lacks the ammunition to make a dent in the “So Bad, It’s Good” genre. It’s strange to complain that a movie isn’t bad enough, but honestly, that’s the only reason Cannibal Girls was shown as a midnight film at the festival this year.

The performance of a much younger and much hairier Eugene Levy remains a highlight. He’s one of the most typecast actors working today, so it’s refreshing to see him playing someone other than a bumbling, out-of-touch authority figure. Cannibal Girls has him in constant groping mode, but he also delivers some shockingly clever bits of comedy (a scene involving a cigarette and guitar strings is the film’s one classic moment).

This cleverness reflects on Reitman, and I see that as a problem. Ignoring the director’s future success, we’re still able to see signs in Cannibal Girls that Reitman is a witty, capable filmmaker, and that this film is just a painful stepping stone, making it much less appealing as a cult film. Things would be a lot more fun if Reitman was a talentless director gleefully and passionately in love with his work. It’s a shame. This film could’ve been so much worse.

South by Southwest (SXSW) runs from March 12 to March 20.