Every year, thousands of out-of-towners arrive in Austin to attend SXSW and they immediately complain of the heat. Apparently having had enough of their whining, the Weather Spirits of Texas, each of them a terrifying trickster god, decided to unleash a torrential downpour upon the the city.
Hopefully, you like water in your shoes while you stand in line around the side of the Paramount theater.
Although the interactive portion of SXSW had been going on for some time, SXSW Film got rolling on Friday evening, with a packed house on hand to see Drew Goddard's long-awaited, highly-anticipated, seeming-lost-in-the-cracks-of-Hollywood-since-MGM's-collapse Cabin in the Woods. Those of us who arrived two hours ahead of time to secure good seats found ourselves soaking wet within the first thirty minutes of the borderline excruciating wait. By the time the guy walked by handing out the Fandango branded ponchos, we were all beyond caring. We had gone beyond being wet…we had become one with the water.
Being soaked to the bone and seated in the Paramount's infamously uncomfortable seats (and yes, the Paramount is gorgeous, rightfully legendary theater, but those seats remain a nightmare of nightmares), anything less than extraordinary would have been a letdown for this exhausted audience.
Thankfully, Cabin in the Woods rocked the house, winning over non-horror fans and sending everyone out in the lobby reeling. As producer Joss Wheddon (who took the stage for a Q&A, along with Goddard and cast members Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Kristen Connolly and Hutchison) all-but-admitted: It's going to be a tough film to sell to mass audiences without giving away what makes it such a wonderful riff on the horror genre. What begins as a standard "five college kids go to an isolated cabin and encounter horrifying things that want to kill them" movie quickly evolves into something far more bizarre, smart and hilarious. To say much more would do those who haven't seen it a disservice, but when the third act comes around the shit really hits the fan, it's hard to imagine a genre buff in the audience not beaming like an idiot at what Goddard and company have cooked up.
After the Paramount, it was time to hoof if over to the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar to take in a midnight screenings. After figuratively flipping a coin to make a choice, it was time to see [REC] 3: Genesis, the third entry in the Spanish found footage horror series.
Fans of the series are in for a surprise. After the opening twenty minutes, the film abandons the found footage conceit and completely changes its tone, transforming from a brutal, unrelenting horror thriller into a silly splatter flick in the vein of early Peter Jackson films like Dead Alive. Dubbed by many horror fans in the audience as the "Halloween 3 of the [REC] series" (or, perhaps more appropriately, the "Army of Darkness of the [REC] series"), the film is such an abrupt change in style and tone from its predecessors that its bound to give some viewers cinematic whiplash.
The audience ultimately found itself torn on the final result: Some enjoyed the change in pace and style and embraced it as a fun, silly gore flick while others (including yours truly, if we're going to be honest here) found themselves annoyed that it didn't deliver the raw scares and terror that we've previously associated with the series.
The rain only got worse on the second day and I learned a hard lesson about parking near 7th and Trinity if your first screening of the day is at the Violet Crown cinema. That lesson is something like: Don't park at 7th and Trinity if you need to hoof it through the rain over to the Violet Crown.
Despite being a dedicated Austin moviegoer, this was my first time at the Violet Crown, a downtown theater that tends to showcase art and independent films. As the kind of guy who practically lives at the Alamo Drafthouse, I'm instantly critical of every other movie theater in the world, but I'll hand it to the Violet Crown: it's a gorgeous location that oozes sophistication and the front row of big, comfy chairs with footrests made the long walk to the theater worth it. However, Violet Crown's projection and sound are simply not up to snuff. If they improve their picture and sound quality, they will be a true force to reckoned with in the Austin film scene. But not yet.*
*(3/12/12: I have been informed that the projector was not one of the Violent Crown's, but was installed by the SXSW staff for the event.)
After a serious technical snafu delayed the start of the film, the audience was treated to Electrick Children, the story of a 15-year-old girl living in an isolated religious sect who hears rock and roll for the first time and finds herself blessed with an immaculate conception. A funny, sweet, sad and very odd little film, Electrick Children is the kind of movie you go to festivals for. It's an actual discovery, a film made by first-timers and acted by first-rate newcomers (and a handful of veterans who are willing to take a pay cut to be part of something truly original). Like many low budget indies, it's rough around the edges, but it overcomes any technical hiccups through sheer force of personality.
With the screening over, it was time to hoof it north to visit the opening of Mondo's brand spankin' new gallery. Austin's increasingly popular pop culture art boutique used to live in a tiny room in the South Lamar Drafthouse. Now they live in a small, cozy art gallery near 42nd and Guadalupe. In addition to original (and gorgeous) screen prints for films like Brazil, Star Trek II, The Fly and Forbidden Planet, the Mondo Gallery displays incredible paintings and drawings, from an epic portrait of Emperor Ming to an incredible Dune portrait from the iconic Drew Struzan (which was on sale for a jaw-dropping $10,000). Even if you don't have the money to spend, the gallery is a blast to visit and is bound to make the movie fan in your life grin like a lunatic.
Despite my original plan to catch a screening of the horror/fantasy Thale, a chance encounter with a friend convinced me to check out Nature Calls, a comedy from the director of Catechism Cataclysm, which made a splash at last year's fest. How much you'll enjoy your SXSW experience is dependent entirely on how willing you are to roll with the punches and change your plans at the drop of a hat. When you're battling the rain, the crowds and the limited capabilities of your own two feet, you have to be willing to break from your schedule if you want to have a good time.
As for Nature Calls? A few big laughs, surrounded by stretches of unfunny. It's the kind of comedy that finds most of its humor in the mean-spirited abuse of all that is nice and well-adjusted, so it's a shame that tacked-on sentiment and tired jokes water down a film so ruthless in its depiction of humanity. Cast members Patton Oswalt, Johnny Knoxville and Rob Riggle (who proved himself effortlessly charming in the post-film Q&A, a far cry from his loud, abrasive comic persona) are well cast and do what they can with the material, but the film is ultimately a swing and a miss.
The problem with seeing two films in a row at the same venue is that there is already a line for that next film when you leave the first one. So it was out of the Paramount and into the line for the Paramount and therefore, another lengthy wait in the rain. If you're the kind of person without the fortitude to stand in line for hours on end, I cannot, in good conscious, recommend the SXSW Film experience to you.
But you know what? All of the cold, wet line queuing is instantly worth it when you find yourself watching a great movie. In this case, it was Safety Not Guaranteed, a sweet, funny and beautifully romantic movie about what happens when a magazine writer and his two interns respond to a newspaper ad requesting partners for a journey back in time. Exactly what happens when Aubrey Plaza, Jake Johnson and Karan Soni meet the possibly insane potential time traveler played by Mark Duplass is something you should discover on your own when you seek this film out (and you should, by all, means, seek this film out).
Although some members of the audience found the film a little too fluffy to be genuinely great, Safety Not Guaranteed won over the Paramount audience in a big way. To see the film is to see Plaza make the leap from funny television comedienne to genuine indie star and witness the birth of a talent to watch in director Colin Trevorrow.
As with day one, the day ended with a journey back to South Lamar for a midnight screening. In this case, that midnight screening was a "super secret screening" that had already been spoiled for anyone with a Twitter feed. The film was Sinister from co-writer/director Scott Derrickson and co-writer/local-made-good C. Robert Cargill and it was worth the three hour wait in the wet, freezing cold.
Sinister follows a true crime writer played by Ethan Hawke who moves his family to a home where a grisly crime occurred to conduct research for a book on the event. The discovery of a box of home movies in the attic leads to him uncovering the kind of things that you never, ever want to uncover. Unlike Cabin in the Woods, there is little that is "fun" about Sinister. It's power lies in the fact that it's just a damn scary film. Period. Watching it was a stressful, unsettling experience that kept me awake throughout the night. I can't wait to see it again when it opens in October.