SXSW Film Festival Recap: Day Two – Before Midnight, Prince Avalanche, The Bounceback, Drinking Buddies

With the hard part out of way – no longer having to venture into Austin and deal with the rigmarole of picking up my badge – I could concentrate on a little writing and seeing five features. But alas fortune doesn’t always favor the bold.

I had planned to spend my entire day watching the films playing at the celebrated Paramount Theatre, a 1200-seat venue that is the destination spot for all the headlining features, like the opening night selections The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (which I skipped in favor of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color) and Evil Dead. In the end, I did in fact see all my features at the Paramount, but instead of five features it was only four.

My first film selection was The Crash Reel, a documentary that played to strong response at Sundance and was picked up by HBO Documentary Films to air on its premium network this fall. Directed by celebrated documentarian Lucy Walker, of Devil’s Playground and Waste Land previously, her latest subject was Kevin Pearce, an extreme sports athlete and friendly rival to “the Human Tomato” Shaun White. The two, ranked one and two in the world when it comes to gleaming the snowcapped half-pipe, would compete at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

White would eventually win a gold medal, but Pearce would suffer a damaging brain injury from one of the half-pipe tricks he was attempting.

The documentary supposedly cobbles together fifteen years of verite footage in exploring Pearce’s rehabilitation and desire to snowboard again.

I say supposedly, because I don’t know for sure.

In all the years I’ve been attending SXSW there’s only been one incident where a faulty projector prevented the exhibition of a screening at the Paramount. Yesterday, I witnessed it again. Sort of ironic when you think about it; a film called The Crash Reel that can’t play as scheduled. So it looks like I’ll either have to catch it later in the week or wait for its eventual TV premiere on HBO.

With the first screening being a bust, I ventured down the block and finished typing and publishing my first recap of my experiences so far in Austin.

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Cast and crew of The Bounceback

On tap next was the latest from Bryan Poyser, director of such independent films as Dear Pillow and Lovers of Hate. Having seen neither, I went into the film at the expense of having read an article in the Austin American-Statesman that morning, about Poyser’s experience with making a much bigger indie release yet still able to showcase the city of Austin’s intrinsic qualities. This would include the booze-filled nightlife of 6th Street and something that was new to me: “Air Sex.” The fact that there’s a one-paragraph section in the press notes I received that talks about it should serve as proof at how pertinent it is to the story overall.

The central story is about two lovers who have problems coping with their break up. Stan (Cloverfield‘s Michael Stahl-David) and Cathy (The Last Exorcism‘s Ashley Bell) fall out of love as the two relocate from Austin to opposite sides of the U.S. Stan goes to Los Angeles in hopes of developing a TV sitcom; Cathy goes to college in New York, focusing on her medical degree.

When Stan learns that Cathy is coming to Austin for a weekend visit, he has a Eureka moment and buys an overly expensive ticket just to have a serendipitous chance at bumping into her.

While they do eventually bump into one another, it is the journeys that both take in that weekend that allows for introspection and reflection about love and relationships. Throw in some foul-mouthed humor and the above-mentioned air sex exploits and you have a comedy that finds the right balance of crass and sentimentality. Its low-fi production values may prevent it from appearing in many theaters, but it’s the type of comedy that should find an audience on VOD.

It helps that Poyser is working with a talented young cast. Besides Michael Stahl-David and Ashley Bell, we have Zach Cregger, co-founder of The Whitest Kids U’ Know; Sara Paxton, from Ti West’s The Innkeepers; and Addison Timlin, who was most recently featured in Stand Up Guys with Al Pacino and Christopher Walken. All five actors give something to the story, a break-up story that far exceeds the $50 million one Hollywood gave us several years ago starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. (B-)

With one film down and three more most likely to go, I stood in line to gain re-entry into the Paramount. While waiting I encountered one of my fellow Houston film critics and listened to a conversation he was having with a music-licensing representative with Sony Music. It’s a profession they don’t talk about in film school, but it is an important job regardless. He works with documentary filmmakers who may want to include one or several of songs owned and licensed by Sony. This would include such artists as Aerosmith and Elvis Presley.

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Prince Avalanche stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch; and director David Gordon Green

The next film on the schedule was David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche. Bursting onto the scene with 2000’s George Washington, the North Carolina School of the Arts graduate and friends with fellow NCSA grads Danny McBride (HBO’s Eastbound & Down) and Jody Hill (Observe & Report), the filmmaker would follow it up with three other sensitive stories about ordinary folk. Then he took a Hollywood detour making Pineapple Express followed by the pitiable comedies Your Highness and The Sitter.

Forget Joe DiMaggio, where have you gone David Gordon Green?

Thankfully, his seventh film, Prince Avalanche, is a good step in the right direction of old David Gordon Green. A loose remake of the Icelandic film Either Way, Avalanche stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as workers on a road crew in Texas circa 1988, repainting road lines and replacing signposts on rural routes damaged a year prior by a devastating wildfire. The job is solitary, free of the confines of cubicles and meaningless water cooler chitchat. Monday through Friday, Alvin (Rudd) and Lance (Hirsch) work together and have only each other to talk to.

Alvin enjoys the quiet and solitude the work affords. He’s dating Lance’s sister, Madison, and enjoys reading the letters he receives from her. Lance is younger and more than a little stir crazy. He’s also bored and uses the weekend to work his sexual urges in the nearest big city.

The bulk of the plot is just them talking. There are two other characters in the film, but this is clearly the Paul Rudd-Emile Hirsch show. We’ve seen James Franco (127 Hours) and Tom Hanks (Cast Away) dominate the screen solo, but those stories were about harrowing situations. Here we have two actors whose relationship evolves at the expense of their distinct personalities. The reckless youth (Hirsch) and grown-up (Rudd) disagree and ridicule one another, but also envy what the other has.

Prince Avalanche is a small-scale film where it seems that David Gordon Green and his actors were out in the woods a few weeks before tape started rolling. Bastrop, Tex., the city where thousands of acres were destroyed by wildfires in 2011, is photographed by Green’s longtime cinematographer Tim Orr. He captures the woods’ natural habitat and beauty. And when the meditative images are paired with a music score from Explosions in the Sky (Friday Night Lights) it makes for remarkable experience.

Prince Avalanche is an intriguing movie bolstered by two talented leads. Paul Rudd who usually looks the same in every movie he’s been in since Clueless, dons a thick handlebar mustache and moves across the screen with such countenance that it would be easy to mistake him for somebody else; much like his character from the little-seen Diggers.

The only major fault is that the film tends to drag in several spots. There’s a sub-plot involving a gregarious, alcohol-loving truck driver that, while funny, doesn’t really add to the story. But it is the highs and lows of Alvin and Lance’s relationship that make Prince Avalanche an entertaining film and the first in quite some time worthy to be added to David Gordon Green’s film cannon. (B)

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Cast and crew of Drinking Buddies

In keeping with the relationship angle – only this time with a pair of male and females – up next was Drinking Buddies from writer/director Joe Swanberg. A few years ago I saw his film Silver Bullets up here at SXSW and wasn’t too impressed. What drew me to his latest feature was the cast. The comedy stars Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston. Johnson and Wilde play Luke and Kate, co-workers at a Chicago brewery, where they make and drink beer, and flirt. They are perfect for each other, except they’re both in relationships. Luke is nearing marriage with his longtime girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), and Kate is in a stable but missing-something relationship with her music producer boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston).

As the film progresses the comedy explores the problems that arise when blurring the line between a work friendship and budding romance. And with Kate and Luke drinking their product on a regular basis that line becomes that much blurrier.

Coming from someone who likes to see what happens after the happily ever after ending that women enjoy so much in traditional romantic comedies, I applaud Swanberg’s decision to have a relationship comedy where the relationships with the couples have difficulty in reaching that ending. Here, we see relationships that are in a constant state of cruise control or collapsing due to indiscretions, or with a will they or won’t they mentality.

All the actors are good in their roles, but the best performance is Olivia Wilde. Whether speaking hyperbolically or not, Wilde admitted that she felt Drinking Buddies was the highlight of her career so far. She’s always been easy on the eyes but has never had a role that challenged her acting-wise. She may not be Meryl Streep, but she was constantly pushing her character in new directions through improvisation, which Swanberg encouraged of all of his actors.

Drinking Buddies is another comedy that probably won’t be watched by huge numbers in theaters, but if the reaction by the Paramount audience is any indication, I hope it is one of those comedies that is enjoyed by everyone, not just those who are unsure if they are “just friends” or “more than friends.” (B-)

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Before Midnight director Richard Linklater

The final film of the evening, and one that could very well be the best film I see at SXSW this year, was Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. It is the latest entry in the director’s Before series, following Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. The story picks up nine years after Sunset with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Jesse’s son from a previous marriage stayed with him in Greece for the summer. Jesse also has two lovely blonde twin girls with Celine. Celine is contemplating a change in careers after her latest environmental project was rejected.

Just like its predecessors, Jesse and Celine talk, and talk, and talk. Aside from one section with friends during lunch, and the pre-title intro, the two are alone with each other discussing love and life in their early forties. And what an illuminating discussion it is.

If you had no prior knowledge of the two other films in the series, you would easily assume that Before Midnight was adapted from a play of some kind. It just feels like a play. The amount of dialogue on display is alarming for a feature that runs short of two hours. The conversations Jesse and Celine have remain the series’ trademark. They are intense, thoughtful and personal in their depiction of a couple teetering on the edge of separation.
Writer/director Richard Linklater grabs our attention early on with a perfectly acted two-shot in a car. The scene lasts 13 minutes without a single edit. (Okay, there’s one shot of Greek ruins, but the master shot remains intact.) In the post-film Q+A, Linklater said they filmed that scene three times. It is the longest of several conversations that take happen without cutting from the actors.

Without revealing too much about the content of their conversations, just know that they are philosophically different from the conversations they had in Vienna (Before Sunrise) and Paris (Before Sunset). Hell, love is totally different from when they first met wandering the city of Vienna eighteen years ago. Cellphones weren’t as prevalent in 1995 as they are now, and long-distance couples Skype; they don’t write letters.

Those long takes of natural conversation between Jesse and Celine are subtle in their depiction. It is only when Linklater isolates the characters in single frames when you know they are turning one another, bringing up their hang-ups and regrets.

Before Midnight has so many memorable turns that you can’t help but applaud the work of Linklater, Hawke and Delpy. All three contributed to the screenplay and the film is all the better because of it. The opening drive shows the mounting friction that has been bubbling underneath, and when night falls everything erupts in an emotional-heavy thirty-minute climax inside a hotel room. The mounting emotional erosion and the vulnerability of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s performances are nothing short of extraordinary.

In its own unique way I feel that what Richard Linklater has accomplished with the Before series what Michael Apted has accomplished with his Seven Up series. Revisiting these fictional characters every nine years is a beautiful study in how love and life evolves and the perspective that goes with it.

Before Midnight is such a beautiful exercise and contemplative film about our own relationships that I’m all for another sequel for 2022.

When asked about the possibility, Linklater jokingly remarked that they might speed through the next few installments and just remake Amour instead. Touché. (A+)

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

Recap: Day One

Evil Dead – Review

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