SXSW Film Festival Recap: Day Four – The Spectacular Now, Hawking, Rewind This!

One of the greatest problems one can encounter up in Austin during SXSW is parking. And it seems to happen to me at least once every time I come up here. Looking at my schedule, I knew the first film I wanted to see didn’t start until 1:15 p.m. Knowing this, I did a quick calculation in my head figuring out the best time to make my arrival. After a nutritious breakfast of scrambled eggs and a whole avocado, I managed to get to Austin from Pfluggerville in 30 minutes, but I spent nearly another half hour trying to find a place to park. Luckily, I managed to get my favorite parking garage spot even though there was a sign posted outside signaling the lot was full.

My first film for the day was the documentary Rewind This! Any time a film has an exclamation mark at the end of the title you know it is a big deal. And the subject matter was a very big deal for director Josh Johnson, who worked on the film on and off for three years. The documentary is a love letter to one of the longest media formats in terms of life expectancy that has been pretty much forgotten with the arrival of DVD and Blu-ray. Of course, I’m talking about VHS. In what could have easily been just a waxing nostalgia piece about the format, Johnson explores how the arrival of VHS created a greater fondness for cinema. It also helps that the documentary is so damn entertaining. Rewind This! made me recall my own childhood memories of going to video stores and seeing posters and cardboard stands advertising the arrival of upcoming titles.

Rewind This filmmakers

Rewind This! director Josh Johnson and producer Carolee Mitchell

Johnson and the film’s producer Carolee Mitchell have assembled a smorgasbord of interview subjects, which includes a number of prominent online critics and bloggers, Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisener, David “The Rock” Nelson (the Ed Wood of the 21st Century), and even director Atom Egoyan, an interview that Mitchell was most surprised to get.

Rewind This! also shows the fringe community of those individuals that continue to watch and collect films on VHS. As Johnson has said in interviews, VHS gave consumers a sense of ownership, a feeling that has started to lessen due to online streaming. Personally, I still have a few VHS tapes in my collection, mainly because they aren’t available on DVD or Blu-ray, and they probably never will be. We’ll never again be able to see as many films disseminated as we did with VHS.

If there’s one bone I have to pick with the film it would be comments made from Basket Case director Frank Henenlotter. He’s got some not so kind words for the people with Criterion, one of the preeminent distribution labels for DVDs and Blu-rays, specializing in “important classic and contemporary films” for film aficionados. Henenlotter’s biggest beef isn’t the films; it is what the company passes off as cover art for its movies that are often times ambiguous in their representation of the film. In no uncertain terms he tells the fine folks at Criterion to go f— themselves. Come on, Henenlotter! How can you not like the cover art for Alex Cox’s Repo Man?

This minor quibble isn’t enough to dissuade my overall love for the film. Rewind This! was definitely a labor of love for Johnson, and the three years he spent on the project has made for a rewarding experience that will make people nostalgic about watching movies on VHS, visiting Mom and Pop video stores, and loving cinema in the comfort of their own living rooms. I’m hopeful that one day the film will be played as a double feature at Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas with the Drafthouse Films release Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. (B+)

Hawking filmmakers

Hawking director Stephen Finnegan and executive producer Ben Bowie

Keeping with documentaries I decided to check out the world premiere of Hawking about the famed genius Stephen Hawking. My initial reaction leaving the theater was completely positive, but now that I have had time to digest the documentary, allowing the buzz to wear off, I realize that I may have overestimated its impact.

Stephen Hawking’s place in pop culture is known all too well, and director Stephen Finnigan feels content to keep everything in the pop culture realm as to not bore audiences who may not be familiar with the famed physicist or his best-selling book A Brief History of Time. That’s disappointing; one of the greatest intellectuals who has ever lived should be deserving of a deeper documentary, especially when said intellectual was an active participant in the project, both as the subject and narrator.

Stephen Hawking is a genius who has lived more than two-thirds of his life with ALS. This we know. To better understand the man you would think Finnegan would give us more than a few brief moments about Hawking’s marriage and his children. (Apparently, his children were interviewed, but aside from home movies are not featured.)

The documentary is framed around Hawking in 2012, giving lectures in America and his native England, climaxing with his moving speech at the Paralympic Games in London, but it also takes us through his life as a child and student at Oxford University. Finnegan incorporates dramatizations to depict various episodes of Hawking’s personal life, including him on Oxford’s rowing team and his marriage.

The best decision Finnegan made was to have Hawking narrate the film. Even with his robotic voice the famed physicist is able to provide the story with the right amount of emotion and humor. But because Hawking was so active in the making of the documentary, Finnegan can only help put admire the man. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it would have been interesting to learn of Hawking’s personal shortcomings. Instead, we get an appearance from comedian Jim Carrey talking about a bit he once did with Hawking on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. The scene, while humorous and occurring late into the proceedings, once again belabors a point that has been well established already: Hawking is a funny guy.

Sadly, Finnegan’s deep admiration for the man clouds what could have been one of the best docs at the fest. It’s still a good documentary, but hopefully the planned Hawking autobiography set to arrive later this year or in 2014 doesn’t give us what we got here: A Brief History of Hawking.(B-)

The Spectacular Now-Miles Teller_James Ponsoldt

The Spectacular Now star Miles Teller and director James Ponsoldt

The last film of the evening was the breakout Sundance Film Festival hit The Spectacular Now. It is a movie I had been anticipating for weeks after I saw the director’s (Jeff Ponsoldt) second film, 2012’s Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul.

The Spectacular Now is so damn good I don’t know where to start.

First off, it cuts through the BS of what we typically see in teen films. Much like last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Now travels that fine line where it incorporates both the clichés and the unseen moments that we don’t normally get with high school movies.

Based on Tim Tharp’s YA novel and adapted by (500) Days of Summer scribes Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, Ponsoldt’s latest is a near-perfect film about adolescence. Part boy-meets-girl teen romance and coming-of-age alcoholism story, The Spectacular Now manages to be many things. It is sweet and charming. It is also sad and emotional. But more than anything it is honest. Not once does Ponsoldt take shortcuts; the story has constant momentum that never gets too high or too low. In Smashed, Ponsoldt showed the damaging nature of alcohol to a couple in their mid to late twenties. In The Spectacular Now, he shows the damaging nature of alcohol on adolescence. (It should be also acknowledged that the director’s first feature Off the Black is also about alcoholism. I’m sensing a pattern here.)

Miles Teller (recently seen in 21 and Over) plays Sutter Feely, a popular wisecracking high school senior nearing the end of the school year. Always wanting to live in the now instead of plan for the future, Feely’s life gets complicated when his longtime girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), dumps him. When he’s awakened one morning, having passed out drunk in Sixteen Candles Long Duck Dong fashion on a lawn, it is by the lovely Aimee Finicky (The Descendants‘ Shailene Woodley). What begins as a casual friendship, and what should have been a rebound hookup for Sutter, develops into something much deeper.

While it may seem strange that class clown Sutter Feely would be the life of the party, inside he is a wounded soul, suffering from father abandonment issues. Aimee as well defies conventions. Here is a cute girl that hides behind her shyness by adopting a personality that would ensure that most good-looking guys never talk to her.

Sutter’s involvement with Aimee appears as charity work to begin with but evolves the more time they spend with each other. Because of Sutter, Aimee is motivated to stand up to her mother about her desire to attend college after graduation. It is also because of Sutter that she loosens up and begins to share in his love of alcohol. In return Aimee demands of Sutter to meet the father that abandoned him when he was still a child.

In what should have ventured into to soap opera territory given the story points above, The Spectacular Now is deserving of greater inspection. It is evident the apple doesn’t far fall from the tree as far as Sutter’s drinking issues go, but one wonders if his mother or sister have any inclination that he has a problem with alcohol. And is Sutter knowingly enabling Aimee on a path of alcoholism?

Thankfully such questions are never raised and remain ambiguous. Also, Ponsoldt seems fascinated to populate his stories with only flawed individuals, instead of having one person be a scapegoat villain. It is what I loved about Smashed as well. Sutter may have his flaws but he’s not a bad guy.

Alcoholism is not a black and white issue, and I’m glad that James Ponsoldt has handled his three alcoholic tales without the need to point fingers or address problems with a heavy hand. For this, The Spectacular Now will remain what I hope is one of the most endearing films about growing up.

Rather than continue to bore you with my undying love for this film let me just applaud James Pondsolt for being such a great actor’s director. He gets phenomenal performances from both Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley.

If you don’t know who Miles Teller is now, you will after seeing The Spectacular Now. (A)

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

Recap: Day Three

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