SXSW Recap: Day 4

A day that began with a fizzle ended with a bang, as the SXSW train continued on a track to the revitalization of independent cinema. Day 4 brought varying degrees of disappointment and glee as we reached the midpoint of the festival.

Let’s start with the fizzle. Apparently, Robert Duvall had been attached to A Night in Old Mexico for twenty-three years as the project labored in development hell. The script — penned by Lonesome Dove and Legends of the Fall screenwriter Bill Wittliff — tells the tale of Red Bovine (Duvall), a man who has lost everything to time and financial ruin. Today is the day that he decides to just say “screw it.” Fortunately for the plot, it is also the day that heretofore unknown grandson Gally decides to show up and introduce himself to his aging grandfather. The two take a road trip down Mexico way, and find themselves embroiled in some crazy antics involving drugs and a bag full of cash. The film suffers from absurdly amateur dialogue and frightfully painful performances by War Horses‘s Jeremy Irvine – who has a problem acting when he attempts to put on an American accent – and Colombian beauty Angie Cepeda. Duvall shared that it was a “now or never” situation in making the film; why they chose director Emilio Aragon is unclear. What is clear is that the film’s cinematography stands out as some of the worst I’ve seen, fraught with flat landscapes and poor lighting reminiscent of a student’s first short film about alarm clocks and suicide. Grade: D. Now or never. My vote? Never.

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Charlie Paul’s delightfully edgy For No Good Reason is a breath of fresh air in the clogged land of social sludge shockumentaries about the ever-growing indifference to the world. The film details an interview with artist Ralph Steadman in his home and studio conducted by Johnny Depp. A Gilliam-esque trip into the mind of an artist who has collaborated with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Richard E. Grant, Reason is juxtaposed with music video-like interludes animating Steadman’s paintings. We get a window into both his process and his world. It’s also probably the most informed look at Thompson’s world, as artists are best at relating with each other. Paul moves the camera often, never relaxing into a shot to bore the viewer or make the image stale. A true work of art in its own right, the film is more than a biopic — it stands as a testament to the man it examines. Joby Gee edits a fluid, rhythmic symphony of pieces of Steadman’s life authentically and organically, as if this is the only way the story could ever be told. A grand achievement; even the casual docu-phile will find himself taking the trip as he would any narrative piece. There is a message here: a life lived on the sidelines is no life at all, and the further examination of one’s work is not a death sentence, but a continuation of the work itself. Grade: A-. Rock out with your…well, you know the rest.

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I ended the night experiencing a career-long dream I never knew I had: attending Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, with follow-up Q&A — moderated by the brilliant Richard Linklater — with Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, and music supervisor Randall Poster. Budapest is a frame story within a story within a story within an introduction. Author (Tom Wilkinson) recounts the tale told to him in an interview when he was a young writer (Jude Law) staying at the dilapidated hotel, once a grand vision of excess beloved by old money and immigrant workers alike. Zero Moustafa, lobby boy-turned-hotel owner, details the life and times of master concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), a lover of fine scents, chocolates, and older, rich, blonde socialites. When Gustave is accused of the murder of one of his beauties (Tilda Swinton in an intricate make-up job), Zero must help his mentor clear his name.

Fiennes embodies Guatave with such gravitas, chewing the dialogue effortlessly and living the character so fully. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that role.  As always, Anderson takes great care in every frame, and it is obvious that no detail has been overlooked. The film is entirely Anderson’s world, continuing a long history beginning with 1996’s Bottle Rocket. The director began the evening by recalling a memory of the first screening of Bottle Rocket, presented at the University of Texas campus that was similarly followed by a Q&A. In attendance were the Wilson brothers, Anderson, and various cast and crew. Nine people attended the screening, and two walked out before the credits were completed. The fear was that the panel would outnumber the attendees — a nightmare no longer held as the twelve-hundred seat Paramount theatre was packed for Budapest. Fans of Wes Anderson — my faves being The Royal Tenebaums and Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — will appreciate the many cameos and Easter eggs, but I feel this film has true potential to break genre and demographics. Grade: A. Pack your bags for a trip to the Grand Hotel.

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