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SXSW Film 2013

(10 Mar 2013: — Austin, TX)

Day two of SXSW was met with great trepidation. Not only was the disappointment from day one still fresh in the minds of many, but an ominous weather forecast cast a literal cloud over Austin.


Would Joss Whedon’s fast and furious production of Much Ado About Nothing show the signs of its rushed production? Would David Gordon Green’s latest directorial effort, Prince Avalanche, be more like his past glories (All the Real Girls) or his more recent fiascos (Your Highness)? And what should be expected from Drinking Buddies, a mellow dramedy starring indie favorites Ron Livingston and Jake Johnson (not to mention everyone’s favorites, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick)?


The only film on my schedule I wasn’t worried about was Before Midnight, the third part of Richard Linklater’s stellar Before Sunrise trilogy. All this worrying paired with little sleep and an empty stomach lead to an uncomfortable few hours leading up to the first film. Well, I should’ve relaxed a little. SXSW’s Day 2 lineup put the festival back on track in a big way.


Time: 12:30 PM
Food: Two breakfast tacos eaten an hour earlier


First up was Whedon’s modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The farcical comedy paired perfectly with Whedon’s light comedic touch, as well as the writer/director’s able group of favorite thespians.


Lead by Alexis Denisof (who most will know as the sleazy news anchor from How I Met Your Mother) and Amy Ackler (who appeared in Whedon’s entry at last year’s SXSW The Cabin in the Woods) as Benedick and Beatrix, the cast is easily the focal point of this low key production. Both leads shine brightest in scenes cleverly showcasing their talents in physical comedy, but also play convincing commit-o-phobes tricked into falling for one another.


Much like the pre- and post-screening live entertainment, it was Nathan Fillion who stole the show. Playing the cocky but clumsy Inspector Dogberry, Fillion matches the rest of the cast in the impressive speed and understanding of the Bard’s antiquated language. Then he takes a step forward (sometimes literally) and charms the pants off everyone. His perplexed glower, self-assured smile, and off-target anger are all put to good use.


Whedon deserves much of the credit, but I also cite him for my one complaint. Despite being set in modern day, Whedon chooses to show the film in antiquated black and white. Not only was the film not actually shot on film (they used the Red camera, which would have delivered some gorgeous color imagery), but the use of past technology in an otherwise current setting seemed like an unnecessary nod to the story’s origins and the production’s intended simplicity.


Time: 3:30 PM
Food: None


Next up was Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green’s narrative feature starring a mustache-laden Paul Rudd and baby-faced Emile Hirsch. The duo play two construction workers out fixing the roads after a forest fire scorched much of south Texas in 1987 (that part is based on true events).


Much of the considerable enjoyment found within is derived from the easy interaction these two occasionally warring mentalities share. Rudd’s Alvin is organized, responsible, and very much into nature and the solitude it provides. Meanwhile, Hirsch’s Lance wants to party. He speaks plainly and is blunt with even the most sensitive subjects.


He’s also a truly lovable asshole who loves sex, but not the women giving it to him. Hirsch could not have depicted Lance with more honestly. There’s a line in the film where Alvin tells Lance, “You really think you’re a gentleman, don’t you?” It got big laughs in the packed Paramount theater, but I don’t know if it was necessary, given Hirsch’s clear understanding of the character. It’s easily my favorite performance from the actor who also stood out in last year’s Killer Joe. Here’s hoping his hot streak continues.


Time: 6:15 PM
Food: Clif bar


Jake Johnson’s streak ended at one. Last year he co-starred in the criminally under-seen Safety Not Guaranteed, and this year he’s back with another buzzed-about entry. Drinking Buddies is as lackadaisical a romantic comedy as the daily activities of its title characters. The whole experience feels like an average night out with your friends. It plods along, seemingly oblivious to where it’s going, if anywhere. There are occasional chuckle-worthy lines along the way, but by the time we realize what the point is we know it won’t add up.


Time: 9:45 PM
Food: Oatmeal raisin cookie


It wouldn’t surprise me if Drinking Buddies was inspired by Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Both center around dialogue and the idea of what makes one person right or wrong for another. More importantly, they both take their time getting where they’re going. The difference is that Linklater’s movies provide so much more to analyze while they work their way toward the inevitable climax.


Before Midnight may provide more than either of the previous two entries. I’m not going to tell you the context of Jesse and Celine’s relationship because discovering is integral to the film’s set up. What I will say, which should come as no surprise to fans, is there are plenty of gorgeous long takes following the couple’s riveting, funny, and heartbreaking discussions.


Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are as incredible as ever. The actors’ achievements in these films are simply unparalleled in modern cinema. One take was 13 minutes long! 13 minutes of nonstop dialogue! Linklater reminded everyone after the screening that these are scripted scenes. The actors aren’t improvising. All three spent seven grueling weeks writing and rehearsing before setting foot on set.


All this is to say fans will not be disappointed with the third entry. Before Midnight pushes the couple’s romantic saga to new depths and explores important subjects to their specific relationship. I’m sure many couples will leave the theater debating this or that, but I do worry on one point. If there’s one complaint to lodge against this challenging and beautiful film, it has to be with the development of Celeste from film to film. Delpy plays her with impressive passion, but many of her issues were too stereotypical and unrealistic this go ‘round. I think her character will be a hot button for fans, couples, and critics for years to come. Like the film it’s led, though, it’s a topic worth discussing.


Hopefully next time we can discuss it over dinner.


* * *


For regular updates on all of the SXSW Film 2013 happenings, follow PopMatters: @PopMatters

Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.


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