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Mixing a film festival with an industry trade show means there are lots of inane stunt artists and strange publicity materials floating around. Somewhere in the city, a massive balloon animal is being built to promote Twisted: A Balloonamentary. Meanwhile, the anti-consumerist star of the documentary What Would Jesus Buy? attempted to exorcise a Starbucks cash register. In case you were wondering, these are the kinds of people that make movies.


Much more respectable types, we’re sustaining our energy with free candy, alcohol, and the fresh-baked cookies at the trade show booths, all in an attempt to spend as much time as humanly possible watching movies. And, hey, look at that; seems like we succeeded…


Audience of One, The Devil Came On Horseback, Eagle vs. Shark, Frownland, King Corn, The Signal


AUDIENCE OF ONE
Directed by Michael Jacobs


Pastor Richard Gazowsky has a vision, and an expansive one at that. It involves moon colonies, 50 movie projects a year, a 24-hour prayer channel, Christian theme parks, and resorts across the world. Of course, he’s going to start with a modest 60 million dollar film. No, a 100 million dollar film. No, wait, a 200 million dollar film. Where is he going to get the money?


In documentary Audience of One, director Michael Jacobs follows the Pastor as he plans his rise from the pulpit of the cavernous Voice of the Pentecost church. Peeling pastels adorn the inside, but, for all its problems, his church is also filled with song, prayer, and parishioners speaking in tongues. The contrast between Gazowsky’s faith-fuelled ambitions and the stark reality of his dilapidating surroundings only increases as he pursues his dreams. Yet the faith of his parishioners takes him closer and closer—all the way to the first few shots of Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph, Gazowsky’s attempt at “a film of epic proportions,” one meant to be “the most auspicious Christian film ever attempted.”


Church members work day and night to produce costumes, props, and storyboards and to arrange a shoot in Italy. Hearing these industrious men and women tell their stories of devotion, it’s hard not to believe along with them. They sacrifice modesty and doubt, putting in hours of work and hard-earned money to pull the film together. And the project is executed with every guise of professionalism, from the well-fitted costumes and high-tech equipment to a logo that they splash on shiny black vans.


But, their lack of experience wears on their enthusiasm as they arrive in Italy amid questions about who’s paying the bills. The morning prayers motivate church members to pitch in for the set design, but can’t do anything about broken equipment or disgruntled locals who want to get paid for their labor.


The film follows the Pastor along this downward spiral, from the apex of his vision in Italy to the dangers that come with irrationality and a manic belief in an unattainable goal. In the process, Audience of One leads the audience away from derision, spreading empathy even as it asks us to develop our own opinions of this passionate, ambitious, and delusional man. (AS)


Audience of One - Trailer


THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK
Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg


In the interest of giving an honest representation of my experience at SXSW, I should make clear that I didn’t want to see this movie. But I’m at a film festival, and that requires one to push past the comfort zone, even if, in many cases, it means watching movies that are unsettling. My only serious discomfort zones are movies that implicate me in a way that’s too painful to deny, or ones that use rape as a cheap plot device. The genocide in Darfur is one of the horrifying backdrops of the catastrophe of international politics that, because of our collectively deadened sensitivities, we can no longer psychologically absorb. (Anna Nicole’s porny dirtbox of tragedy, on the other hand, is as shiny and inviting as a Cadbury wrapper.)


To watch the world ignore its promises with flimsy sincerity is disheartening—especially when people keep saying that humanity will never allow horrors of this kind to take place again. And, watching the government issue a statement, after being faced with mountains of evidence, that they have determined that what’s happening in Darfur “qualifies” as genocide (if only the victims knew it was a contest) and that, consequently, it is bad, is a gargantuan task.


The Devil Came on Horseback explores both the unintentional absurdity and complexity of the politics surrounding the conflict. The documentary’s structure ripples with the experience of former Marine Captain Brian Steidle, who, after finishing his initial enlistment in the Marine Corps, decided to take a job as an international observer in Darfur. What he witnesses is so visually slashing that the viewer has to steel himself against the blows—otherwise it’s easy to be overtaken by emotional shockwaves. There are children chained down and burned alive, bodies piled with less care than compost, and villages burned hut by hut by horsemen who dole out murder and mayhem. 


Unsurprisingly, Capt. Steidle emerges from the experience with a vastly different view of the world. At the beginning of the movie, he reads from one of his early letters, filled with optimism that as soon as the American people see these images and hear of this conflict, they will instantly react. But, when Capt. Steidle finds out that many of his reports are being buried by the U.N. bureaucracy, he collaborates with Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times to put his images into public view.


Steidle clearly cares, and he has a sincere and compelling way of making the conflict palpable. Even at the film’s screening, long after the movie and Q&A had finished, Steidle stood in the hall surrounded by people with questions, encouraging them to come to hearings at the state Capitol the following day.


This is what people should mean when they call a film “important.” The Devil Came on Horseback walks the thinnest of tightropes, but it is educational without being boring, and conveys the depravity of the genocide without being voyeuristic. (TS)


The Devil Came on Horseback - Trailer


EAGLE VS. SHARK
Directed by Taika Waititi


Have you ever been to an animal party? You dress up like your favorite animal and then play a video game called “Fight Man.” If you win, you get to throw your shoe at your roommate who is wearing a helmet. And you also find the love of your life.


This is what parties are like in Eagle vs. Shark, a curious little picture from New Zealand about an awkward love affair between Lily (co-writer Loren Horsely) and Jarrod (comedian Jemaine Clement, soon to star in his own HBO show, The Flight of the Conchords). Comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite are unavoidable, so I’ll just get them out of the way right now: it’s set in a time a lot like the ‘80s, and boasts a brand of tracksuits called Awesome, bad karate moves, and a lead character with a mullet and cop glasses. The humor is dry, absurd, and mocking but still tinged with compassion. The characters are unrepentant losers: Jarrod impresses his pack of misfit friends with his Fight Man skills and his ridiculous braggadocio, whereas Lily spends time with her brother, who amuses her with bad drawings and Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions.


Although the romance is decidedly unromantic, the film is sweeter than its American counterpart, and the relationships have a genuine tenderness. The storyline is illustrated by a stop-motion animation of apple cores which peek through Lily and Jarrod’s narrative. Workshopped and supported by Sundance and distributed by Miramax, this film is already slated for a theatrical release in June. It’s worth seeing on the big screen for its lush settings of suburban kitsch, designed by a member of the Lord of the Rings art crew, so keep your eye out: after all, it’s got a make-out scene between the two most isolated animals at the animal party. (AS)


Eagle vs. Shark - Clip


FROWNLAND
Directed by Ronald Bronstein


Films about unlikable neurotics aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Hell, I don’t even like Woody Allen, but Ronnie Bronstein’s cast of misanthropes, depressives, and neurotics inhabit a world that’s riveting in spite of the discomfort they create.


Frownland invokes the claustrophobia of the city—the ambiguous relationships conjured when people are forced to live with people they don’t necessarily like. Dore Mann lives in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn and reverse commutes to the suburbs, where he tries to sell coupons to unsympathetic old folks. There is no plot beyond his slow descent into anxiety, momentarily alleviated by escapes into the lives of his friend, his roommate, and his girlfriend—none of whom actually like him and none of whom we learn to like.


The development of characters, according to Bronstein, was a collaborative process. He dipped into the methods of character dramas from the ‘70s to build vivid portraits with his actors. Without a script and without set dialogue, the actors molded their characters from their own bad sides. The result is a certainly not pleasant but does make for ultimately rewarding trip into the extremes of the human condition. (AS)


KING CORN
Directed by Aaron Woolf


At this point in the festival, it seems like every single film I’ve seen, even the narratives and comedies, has taken adversarial positions towards traditional media—lambasting its hidden agendas, absent ideas, and cultic celebrity enchantment.


Like so many others, the makers of King Corn seem inspired by Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me. They like the idea of taking a piece of their own lives and tracing the concentric circles out to larger institutions, ideas of history, and cultural trends. But the similarities between Spurlock’s and Aaron Woolf’s films end at the idea of trying a “You Are Here” map in the political and cultural intersections of the world.


College friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis find out over the course of their friendship that, though they both grew up in Boston, their ancestors farmed in the same tiny county of rural Iowa. Concerned about the fact that they might be members of the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than its parents, Cheney and Ellis get their hair analyzed only to find that much of what they eat is corn. To get to the bottom of the crop’s omnipresence in the food cycle, they decide to move to Iowa and go through the process, from start to finish, of cultivating an acre of corn.


What follows from this experiment is far too complicated and intriguing to crush down in punishing synopsis. Woolf’s documentary explores the rise of the corn sweetening industry, the affordability of massive of amounts of food with little nutritional value, the meat industry, and the amusing Kafka corridors of federal agricultural policy. Thanks to their friendly, genuine personalities, Cheney and Ellis frequently evince gushing, morally reflective openness from others—the one notable exception being the PR person from the corn sweetening manufacturer who won’t give them access to the sweetening plants because, as she vaguely implies, they could be terrorists waiting to spike our fructose syrup with something lethal. But I don’t blame them for not getting past her; after all, public relations lackeys could have kept Luke out of the Death Star.


Later, they bump into a cheeseburger-eating paranoiac in the parking lot of McDonald’s who goes off on a rant about how farms have massively sped up the fattening process of cows. As a result, they have to kill the animals or their corn diets will eventually destroy their digestive systems. Where I would have nodded along with a “please don’t eat me” grin, Cheney and Ellis investigate the man’s claims, finding out just how graphically and disturbingly true they are.


Cheney and Ellis don’t give off the faintest whiff of activism. They’re excited about big tractors; they develop genuine friendships with the farmers they meet along the way; and they don’t seem to know how to ask a loaded question. If that’s acting, then it’s damn good acting. Even when they meet Earl Butts, the man who seems to have had the greatest political impact on the industrialization of farming and the destruction of the family farm, their empathy for his sincerity and infirmity in his advanced age override the compulsion many people might have to punch out a “look, look at the madness you’ve caused” moment.


Part of my reaction to Manufacturing Dissent earlier in the festival was that, in form and tone, it mimicked the high-pitched screeching of cable television. With King Corn, Cheney and Ellis draw an accurate picture of an industry without condemning the people involved—in fact they show that many are trapped in a system that they themselves see as corroding and unhealthy. The outlines of that picture’s intellectual reach are complicated and non-ideological enough for them to leave many of the film’s larger questions hanging.


I can only hope that King Corn launches the same domino-effect as Supersize Me—the world could certainly benefit from people building incredible intellectual vantage points just from paying attention to the details of their own lives and the lives of those around them.  (TS)


THE SIGNAL
Directed by David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry


If I felt no obligation to anyone other than myself, I’d go to every horror movie at SXSW. There’s something intimate, fun, and even slightly childish about sitting in a theater with a group of strangers and experiencing a sensation that, in the wild, means your life is in danger. I guess we just prefer to gain experience in the mediated, snowglobe-sealed world of film. It’s certainly a helluva lot more fun then it would be if this movie were actually happening.


Like any good apocalypse-of-the-human-mind movie, The Signal is centered on a world gone murderously mad because of a signal sent over television, radio, cellphones, and the Internet. But we all know that people don’t kill other people en masse simply because the television tells them to, so we can safely assume that this movie has no satirical content whatsoever. Nope, in this wholly imaginary reality, the television has pumped people so full of psychotic paranoia that they turn on the people they love with every available implement of good zombie-movie death: gardening shears, insecticide canisters, and sledgehammers. Directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry borrow much in tone and tenor from both Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later, keeping the film focused on a small circle of people who desperately try to retain some scrap of society. 


The Signal will freak you out in all the right places. In fact, the filmmakers have assembled a virtual greatest hits of well-done terror tropes, including Jack-Nicholson-in-The Shining eyes and a primal horror scene where the adult is reduced to the last desperate vestige of childhood magic: hiding under the bed. But The Signal works at simultaneous levels, asking serious questions about the ways that technology warps human contact, while also leaving room for you to cling white knuckled to the theater seat and, at times, even laugh your ass off.  (TS)

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