SXSW Film Festival Recap: Day Three – Mud, Downloaded, Hours, You’re Next
by Travis Leamons on March 11, 2013

Two days into the festival and I’ve seen six films so far. Let’s see if we can make it four more for day three.

The third day of the festival is always a test of endurance. For this is the day where we lose an hour due to Daylight Savings. I could have really used that extra hour. According to my recently set watch the time my head hit the pillow to end day two was 4:20 a.m.

Having not adjusted to the time change, like a dope I woke up at 8:00 a.m. That’s a little more than three hours of total sleep, and I had another full day ahead of me. Thankfully, my first feature didn’t start until noon. So I used the better part of the morning composing my thoughts of my second day at the festival, typing away my opinions about The Bounceback and Prince Avalanche.

Arriving in Austin a few minutes before 11:30 a.m., and parking in my favorite underground parking garage (only $5 compared to other places charging $10 or more), I made my way to the Paramount Theatre again – a nice eight-block jaunt from my current location. Let’s hope my slip-on fire engine red Chucks can get the job done.

Surprisingly, the line to see the headliner Mud wasn’t as large as I thought it would be. After all, this is the first time Austin resident Jeff Nichols had one of his films play at SXSW. His previous film, the criminally under-seen Take Shelter, played at the Fantastic Fest in 2011 to strong acclaim. It was also the second time in as many years seeing Matthew McConaughey headline a movie at the festival. (For 2012, he had a pair of films play: Richard Linklater’s Bernie and William Friedkin’s Killer Joe.)

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Mud writer-director Jeff Nichols, producer Sarah Green, and Matthew McConaughey

Making its world premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, I had been anxiously awaiting Jeff Nichols’ third film, Mud. The Arkansas-set southern drama is a nice big slice of Americana pie that follows two young boys and their bond with a fugitive on the run named Mud (McConaughey). Cinematically, comparisons will be drawn to the likes of last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild; maybe not in terms of visual storytelling, but in the emotional growth the two boys go through. Personally, it felt more like Stand By Me and more literary inclined. Ellis is like a modern day Tom Sawyer, and in some respects Mud is like the convict Pip helped in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Mud is a coming-of-age film that chronicles love in its many forms; Nichols’ third feature again shows the complexities that arise in the family dynamic, particularly a family that is barely able to keep its head above water financially. Matthew McConaughey may be the marquee attraction, but the real stars are the two boys, Ellis (Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland). They bring so much to their characters that it was surprising to learn that their performances didn’t rely on improving dialogue, as is the case with most child actors.

When Ellis and Neckbone go on one of their many adventures on the Mississippi, they discover a small island with a boat stuck up in a tree. Thinking finder’s keepers, they soon encounter that the boat already has an occupant, a mysterious man named Mud.

McConaughey is impressive in his role and he serves as the catalyst of the story, ultimately affecting Ellis and his impressions about love. Love is a powerful emotion with powerful consequences. From seeing his mother and father argue to his unrequited love for a high school senior, we share in Ellis’ experiences in how love affects him in positive and negative ways.

Mud has a simple story, but it is told with such dexterity from Jeff Nichols. The Arkansas-setting again serves as a time capsule of the American South. It’s to a point where it is difficult to distinguish the time period of the story. It could range anywhere from the late 1980s to early 2000s. In the Q and A portion after the film Nichols acknowledged that he isn’t a fan of cellular devices and having a story set around the Mississippi makes cell phone usage seem impractical. It’s little things like this that greater define Nichols’ sensibilities as a feature filmmaker.

Working with talented actors and great professionals behind the camera – Adam Stone’s Steadicam cinematography and David Wingo’s emotional score are to be applauded – Jeff Nichols has crafted a great coming-of-age drama that is endearing, and also one that shouldn’t just be comparable to the films and literature mentioned above.

Had it not been for the greatness of Before Midnight the night before at the festival, I would have pegged Mud as the best of the fest. Still, it will remain one of my favorites of the festival and the year at large. (A-)

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Downloaded director Alex Winter

After taking time to relax and eat what would be my first and only meal that day, I saw my first documentary at the festival, Downloaded. The subject of doc is one Metallica and other musicians know all too well: Napster. Director Alex Winter (yes, Bill S. Preston, Esquire) chronicles the launching and eventual crash of the company that would be prolific in both the worlds of music and interactive media.

Produced in part of VH1 as part of its upcoming slate of Rock Docs, Downloaded intrigues, but it also fails to expand upon certain core issues with the whole Napster controversy. The documentary presents a nice platform to contextualize copyright infringement in arts and media. The question is raised at one point by an ethics professor, but very little probing is done.

It’s understandable Winter wanted Downloaded to be about the men directly involved with Napster, but he barely scratches the surface on its creators, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. He juxtaposes current interviews with those captured back in 1999, but in both cases we don’t get a better understanding of just who these men were. Several other questions are either ignored or remain unanswered. The issue of whether or not art belongs to the artist or those who consume and disseminate the work should have been levied.

What one can take away from the documentary is the influence Napster would have on the Internet. But just as Internet start-up companies were here one day and gone the next, Napster’s fall would come about from lawmakers, not competition or a lack of funding. Losing court battles initiated by record labels, musicians and the RIAA would see the company unplugged.

However, the real loser is the record industry. Failing to react to advancements in technology and how then-today’s youth were listening to music, it beget a radical change. Soon other companies would start offering similar services without the same legal problems. Now, people can freely pay for the music they want through iTunes, Amazon, and other sites on the Internet. So while Napster may have died twelve years ago, the music did not.

By chronicling the life and death of Napster, Winter has presented us a cursory overview of what was a groundbreaking Internet start-up that, at the height of its success, had more than 50 million followers. He manages to get interviews with the principal members of Napster, music executives, venture capitalist who supported the start-up and the attorneys who would defend the company against the big, bad music industry.

Still, it’s funny to think that what sank Napster were two musical acts that would seem to be so anti-Establishment – Metallica and Dr. Dre. Sad, but true. (C+)

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Paul Walker and Hours’ writer-director Eric Heisserer

For those who think Paul Walker only does Fast and Furious movies, well I discovered that he does the occasional side project. He has a film playing at SXSW called Hours and the setting is New Orleans during the chaos of Hurricane Katrina. Written and directed by Eric Heisserer, making his feature debut as a director having penned the remakes for A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing, Paul Walker stars as Nolan. In what should be the proudest moment of his life, where he awaits the birth of his first child, Nolan later learns that his wife died during the birthing. Frazzled, and with the impending storm approaching, Nolan is left to care for his newborn daughter who is hooked up to a ventilator. When power fails, Nolan can only provide energy to the ventilator using a hand-cranked generator. A few revolutions of the crank provide the ventilator with just enough of an electrical current to last three minutes. Then as the hours pass by and gloom starts to set in, the failing battery drops to 2:30, then 2:00, then 1:45 with each charge.

The limitations of the chaotic situation makes for an interesting premise and bucks the trend of what we have come to expect from a Paul Walker movie. The ticking clock premise is effective but there are moments where the story stretches credibility in as far as the amount of time Nolan would have to get back to his daughter to crank the generator again. But unless you have a stopwatch on hand, you’re not likely going to be overly consumed with counting every second.

You will also have to forgive the one or two instances where Paul Walker completely loses it emotionally. He wears grief well, but his rare outbursts are cartoonish, borderline buffoonery. Thankfully, Heisserer doesn’t have Walker overdramatize his vulnerability. That way when we get the more action-oriented third act we are fully invested in his character and the daughter he’s trying to save.

Hours doesn’t break any new ground in the thriller genre and, if picked up for distribution, could use a better title. Plus, it would have been nice to incorporate more of New Orleans into the story. Aside for a very nicely done title sequence, the city of New Orleans is only seen sparingly in TV news coverage and when Walker ventures to the top of the hospital trying to signal for help.

As Robert Saucedo put it when he expressed his thoughts on Twitter, Hours is a “straight-to-DVD Redbox discovery waiting to happen.” It’s enjoyable, but probably won’t do much to change any currently held opinions about Paul Walker. (C)

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You’re Next star Sharni Vinson, writer Simon Barrett, and director Adam Wingard

My last film of the evening was a Midnighter that was delayed by 20 minutes so that those who saw the world premiere of Spring Breakers at the Paramount could see a movie that originally played at Fantastic Fest two years ago. And that movie is You’re Next.

I know what you’re thinking. But Travis, if it played two years ago, why is it playing at South by Southwest this year? Well, that would be Lionsgate’s fault. The studio has been sitting on it for years after acquiring after its world premiere showing at the Toronto International Film Festival.

For those who haven’t seen Adam Wingard’s follow-up to A Horrible Way to Die already and want to see an entertaining slasher that is essentially the opening sequence of Scream expanded to 90 minutes, then you should see You’re Next.

Just went we thought we had seen everything the home invasion thriller subgenre had to offer (see Funny Games, Straw Dogs, The Strangers) here comes this a movie with a basic premise with a bunch of crowd-pleasing moments that the horror fans will love. And for being a slasher, it’s one as gory as one might suspect. So that might be easy for the moms and pops who are afraid young Johnny will want to pick up a crossbow and shoot the neighbor’s cat.

The setup is nice and easy. Parents Paul and Aubrey Davison (Rob Moran and Barbara Crampton) are having a long overdue family reunion with their four children: three sons that are best defined as the good one (A.J. Bowen), the smart-aleck (Joe Swanberg) and the young buck (Nicholas Tucci). The Davisons also have a daughter (Amy Siemetz) who is the princess of the family. Some estrangement between parents and siblings exist, but nothing we haven’t experienced at a Thanksgiving dinner one time or another. Converging together for a weekend at a impressive family mansion deep in the woods and isolated, everything is going to script – the awkwardness of introducing current significant others to your family, the occasional sibling ribbing – then the craziness ensues: dinner is interrupted by an arrow through the window, and now segue into the movie that feels like Wingard was crossbreeding Ordinary People, with Clue and Friday the 13th.

Coming from someone who has only seen a small sampling of what Adam Wingard has accomplished as a director (including his segment from The ABCs of Death), I was impressed with the characters and their ties with the director. Many of them are directors as well (including Ti West, who appears just long enough to have his character of Tariq be referred to as Ti-riq) or have played in horror movies before (Barbara Crampton was in Re-Animator). But the true star is miss Sharni Vinson. The lithe and athletic Australian lass doesn’t cower in the face of home invaders; she embraces the tension. She is a role model for young females everywhere. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but one can’t help but embrace a strong female character that is equipped with a very unique set of skills. I’m secretly wondering if she’s Bryan Mills’ other daughter from another marriage.

Taking Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians formula and having its concept apply to this home invasion story makes You’re Next fun and exciting. The added wit and intelligence of the characters is strong, and even the big reveal feels refreshing when one considers problems people are having with money.

Lionsgate will finally unleash this bad boy on audiences this summer in August, and I can’t wait to see it again. (B+)

For continued coverage of SXSW 2013 click on any of the following links:

Recap: Day One

Evil Dead – Review

V/H/S/2 – Review

Recap: Day Two



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