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SXSW 2011: Super, 13 Assassins, Last Days Here, The Beaver, Scenes from the Suburbs, and Natural Selection

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SXSW 2011: <em>Super</em>, <em>13 Assassins</em>, <em>Last Days Here</em>, <em>The Beaver</em>, <em>Scenes from the Suburbs</em>, and <em>Natural Selection</em>

Trying to fit in, like, four or five screenings a day at South by Southwest—a task at which I mostly failed until, maybe, my last two days in Austin, Texas—inevitably took away valuable time to write about everything I saw at the festival that I found of interest, for well and ill. So while I managed to squeeze in time to write about some of my favorites (The City Dark, American Animal, and Bellflower, especially), consider this last dispatch (from me, anyway) a run-down, with brief commentary, of a few others I saw that I either loved, liked, or didn’t like but at least found interesting enough to say something about. Oh, and yeah, Natural Selection, the big SXSW narrative feature award winner.

James Gunn’s Super follows in the footsteps of last year’s Kick-Ass in trying to craft a satire of the ever-popular superhero genre, centering around ordinary Joes who decide to dress up in a superhero and fight crime on their own. Who would be stupid enough to try to reenact fantasy-based superhero heroics in real life? And just why do we take superheroes so seriously in pop culture anyway? Gunn pushes the envelope much farther than Matthew Vaughn did in Kick-Ass, going so far as to suggest a certain sickness in the mind of Frank (Rainn Wilson), who, after he loses the woman he considers the love of his life (Liv Tyler) to a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon), decides to buy himself a costume and become the Crimson Bolt, fighting crime by smashing people in the head with a hammer. But even if one could make the argument that his victims, in their varying ways, deserve the hurt Frank brings down on them, that doesn’t diminish this nagging sense that, on a fundamental level, Frank himself might just be…well, insane.

At least, though, one can understand Frank’s retreating into his own comic book-inflected view of the world as his way of coping with his own personal hurt. What, though, of Libby, the comics-store employee who eventually tries to become his sidekick? Played by Ellen Page as a flaming ball of twisted energies and desires, Libby has no real reason to try to live out her superhero-sidekick fantasies except that, well, she really, really loves superhero comics and wants to live them out in the real world, no matter the bloody consequences. Her character, and the ferocious manner with which Page attacks the part, is simultaneously hilarious and disturbing; in short, she represents the ambition of Gunn’s film, which aims to make you laugh and then shake you out of your genre-bound complacency and make you think about what exactly it is you’re laughing at.

To that end, Gunn is uninhibited about juxtaposing different tones and styles together in Super, with scenes of surreal fantasy coexisting with scenes played for a kind of perverse realism, and with moments of emotional sincerity clashing with sequences of pitch-black humor. The film often feels like a bit of mess, in that regard; on the other hand, if the film had been neater and more precise with its aims and means, the film might not have the uneasy cumulative effect it has.

13 AssassinsMuch has already been written about Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, especially at this blog (it’s been traveling the festival circuit for the past year or so), that I don’t have much to add, really. Yes, it’s a pretty traditional samurai tale, traditionally told—unexpected, perhaps, from the man known for such provocations as Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu. But every once in a while, there are touches of his usual perversity, most memorably in one horrifying scene early on involving a woman heartlessly mutilated by evil Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki). In any case, it all culminates in a lengthy climactic battle sequence that feels like one for the ages, but it’s great not necessarily in the expected sense of witnessing an awesome feat of staging and choreography. As Shinzaemon (Kōji Yakusho) and company’s fight against Lord Naritsugu drags on and limbs get endlessly hacked up, what starts out as a thrilling piece of staging and choreography becomes—well, still fairly thrilling, but also just numbing and repetitive. And then we get to Shinzaemon’s final showdown with the Lord, and here and in its sobering aftermath, Miike, working from a screenplay with Daisuke Tengan (based on a screenplay by Kaneo Ikegami), really twists the knife in our expectations. Let’s just say, victory isn’t quite as sweet as expected and, while justice is served, it’s not as poetic as Shinzaemon expects. All that’s left is a lot of waste—beautiful-looking waste, but waste nevertheless.

Last Days Here, the new documentary from Don Argott and Demian Fenton, tells the story of Bobby Liebling, the lead singer of the heavy-metal rock band Pentagram, seen at the beginning of the film in the throes of heavy drug addiction and still living in his parents’ basement in Virginia, but eventually struggling to work his way out of said addiction and restarting his rock career. It’s a standard redemption arc, but when it works as movingly as it does here, it seems churlish to carp about that. Maybe it’s the presence of Sean Pelletier, the impassioned Pentagram fan who takes it upon himself to become Liebling’s manager, that grabs us by the throat the most; as he develops an intense emotional stake in seeing a beloved musician rise back to the top, so do we as we see the extent of Pelletier’s devotion. In that sense, Last Days Here is not only about one once-dismissed rocker’s redemption, but also about the mutual love and admiration between a fan and his rock idol.

The BeaverJodie Foster’s The Beaver premiered at SXSW last week riding on the heels of its star Mel Gibson’s recent, by now notorious, behavior…and it’s tempting to read a kind of personal allegory of sorts into its bizarre tale of a man who becomes so despairing that he basically puts a beaver puppet on his left hand and, armed with an Australian accent (Gibson’s natural one?), creates a whole new, considerably livelier, identity with it, using it as his way of communicating with the world. And Gibson so thoroughly inhabits this strange role that one can’t help but wonder if he isn’t, in a sense, trying to exorcise some personal demons through this performance. The possibilities of marrying an artist’s personal details and his art on screen are just about endless.

If only the movie itself were as interesting as all that. I know, I know: I should be judging this movie based on what it is and not what it isn’t. But I might as well admit that as the oddball premise of Kyle Killen’s script played out, I kept wishing that someone other than Foster had directed this material. Whereas someone like, say, Luis Buñuel might have brought out the surreal elements of Killen’s script and damped down the schmaltz, Foster—who also acts in the film as Meredith Black, the wife of Gibson’s Walter Black—directs the script in a Hallmark TV-movie manner, creating a tonal disconnect between the blandly realistic style and its black-comic bizarro-world substance. As a result, I had trouble taking the film all that seriously, even when it went into tearjerking-overload mode by the end. Judging by the mostly generous reaction to the film that greeted its world premiere, though, one’s mileage may vary.

I caught a handful of short films at SXSW, including new works by Harmony Korine (the likable throwaway Umshini Wam, available for viewing here), Park Chan-wook (the lovely, if arguably a bit gimmicky, iPhone 4-shot Night Fishing, which he co-directed with Park Chan-kyong), and the Safdie brothers (John’s Gone, another gritty Cassavetes-esque slice of life in the mold of their recent feature Daddy Longlegs). The most striking of them, though, was Spike Jonze’s collaboration with Arcade Fire, Scenes from the Suburbs. The music from the Canadian band’s recent Grammy-winning album that is featured mostly plays as an emotional backdrop to the story it recounts, of an adult narrator (voiced by the band’s lead singer, Win Butler) recalling fragments of his teenage years growing up in a suburb during a time of war.

Jonze’s storytelling style is arguably the most interesting thing about it: Just as the narrator’s memories are broken up into fragments, so is the film, with each episode punctuated by cuts to black. Jonze immerses us through the cobwebs of the narrator’s memory, and what we see are by turns pleasant, perplexing and frustrating, as he bears witness to, without ever quite fully comprehending, the loss of innocence of a dear friend whose war-scarred brother has just come back from some undisclosed combat. The sense of emotional confusion that Scenes from the Suburbs evokes is so vivid in its concentrated half-hour length that it’s difficult to imagine it being quite so powerful at feature length.

And finally, Natural Selection, which swept the SXSW awards as both Grand Jury and Audience Award winners, among other honors. Robbie Pickering’s debut feature had me clutching my head early on with its easy potshots at the supposed hypocrisy of conservative Christians and subsequent slew of “quirky” situations and plot twists masking an otherwise standard road movie in which polar opposites—an ultra-religious Christian housewife (Rachael Harris) and her unkempt, unruly long-lost “son” Raymond (Matt O’Leary)—learn to accept and love each other. The film does somewhat rally when Pickering starts focusing less on being snarky and actually bothers to take seriously the plight of the poor woman at the heart of the film, pulled into two different directions by vastly contrasting lifestyles and value systems. The final moments suggest a woman on the verge of finally taking control of her own life, deciding for herself how to proceed. I just wish the journey to that moment of epiphany didn’t seem so rigged from the outset.

Natural Selection

SWSW ran from March 11 – 20.