SXSW Film Festival Day 3: The Streak Continues

The third day of Austin’s 26th annual SXSW Film Festival has come and gone, and I am fortunate to continue to see a good, nay, great movie every 24 hours. Friday featured the long-awaited and highly successful premiere of The Cabin in the Woods. Saturday floored the packed house of the Paramount with the unnerving Killer Joe. Sunday had three strong contenders for the “Film Champion of the Day” trophy on my docket — The Hunter with Willem Dafoe; The Do-Deca-Pentathlon from the Duplass brothers; and Nature Calls starring Patton Oswalt.

First up was the Tasmania-based drama The Hunter. Shot entirely on the Australian island, director Daniel Nettheim’s gripping film stars Willem Dafoe as Martin David, a hunter-for-hire out to catch the elusive and rare Tasmanian tiger. The film plays out much like lone assassin films of the past — Dafoe has no family, no past, and no friends of note. He’s sent from place to place to do a job and that’s all he does.

This time, of course, things are a bit different. Two children and a comatose mother greet him at his temporary shelter, throwing his neat and tidy world into what must feel like chaos. Relationships develop, ambitions are questioned, and David must face himself just as he faces the tiger (if he faces the tiger, I should say – the damn thing is hard to find!).

It all sounds rather trite, doesn’t it? Parts of it are, absolutely. Yet Nettheim never lets the story slip out of focus, and kindly keeps the metaphors to a minimum. He lets his actors do the work (always a good decision when working with Dafoe), as well as the stark, haunting countryside surrounding them. It’s a quietly resonating piece of art, deliberately told through a focused vision.

The Do-Deca-Penthalon These bros would put hos first.

Almost the exact opposite can be said for the Duplass’ brothers low-budget comedy, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon. It features the brothers’ trademark injection of heart, but also their knack for quirky, often embarrassing humor. The latter gets off to a rough start. The film focuses on the relationship between Jeremy (Mark Kelly) and Mark (Steve Zissis), estranged brothers whose animosity flourished after a childhood one-on-one sports challenge ended in controversy. The two meet up again for Mark’s birthday at their mother’s house, and, well, obviously they decide to redo the competition.

At first, Mark and Jeremy’s feud is too obvious and uncomfortable for the audience. Jeremy is painted as the unwelcomed loser son while Mark appears to be the ideal offspring — married with a son and a good job. We know who they are. We know what they’re going to do. Why make it so obvious who we should be rooting for?

I should’ve known the Duplass brothers, who were both in attendance despite Jay’s wife giving birth to their child only a few days earlier, had a plan. Do-Deca picks up nuanced momentum as it moves along, making every scene better than the last until a unique conclusion tops off the funny film. I didn’t find it as enjoyable or moving as their first studio film, Cyrus, but this was actually made well before the John C. Reilly/Jonah Hill comedy. Their style behind the camera has developed significantly, but it doesn’t hurt Do-Deca. Neither do the relatively unknown actors. These elements just don’t manage to elevate the material as they did for me in Cyrus.

The crowd in attendance on Sunday evening may not have agreed. They were hooting and hollering throughout, even if a good chunk of the vocals were coming from people directly involved with the film. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and I may have been the only one to duck out of the theater before Jay and Mark Duplass took the stage with their cast to discuss the film (I did apologize to the brothers on my way out, as they were waiting patiently in the aisle for the credits to end).

Though I would’ve loved to hear the affable Dupli take horrible questions from the crowd and spin them into golden nuggets of comedy, I had another show to catch way out at one of the SXSW satellite venues. The Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane Cinema is located about eleven miles southwest of Austin (fitting, I know), and took me about 25 minutes to reach by car (getting my car out of the garage took up five of those minutes). Let me tell you — it’s worth the trip.

The grand opening celebration doesn’t actually start until March 22, but thankfully SXSW was able to procure the venue for a few of its films. Featuring a full bar, wait staff, stadium seating, and tables for your food and drinks, the Slaughter Lane cinema is easily one of the best theaters I’ve ever seen. It makes me want to move to Austin solely to make it my regular hang out. The other Alamos I’ve visited during the fest also seem great, but the design of the Slaughter (and that name — I mean, it’s named after the street it’s on, but what a name it is!) put it at the top of the list. The tables are close enough to your seat for ease of use, but cut so they leave room to escape your chair with ease. Plus, there’s enough legroom to stretch all the way out and not trip your server (at least, for a 5’9’’ man like myself). Throw in the monsters strangling the neon sign above the bar, film projector lights inside the theaters, and screenings of old movies as well as new blockbusters, and Austin has got itself quite the new movie venue.

Nature Calls These bros don’t seem to care about hos.

If you’re wondering why I just spent so much time talking up the theater, it’s because a) I love theaters. The theater is almost as important as the movie you see in it. Price, audiences, and comfort all play a key factor in the moviegoing experience and when you find a theater that gets most or all of these right, it’s worth writing about (for the record, no, they are not paying me for this. They’ll probably never even read it). And b) the film I saw at the wonderful Alamo Slaughter Lane cinema was terrible, and thus dwarfed by its housing.

Nature Calls is an utterly befuddling film in its premise, execution, and attracted talent. The story revolves around a Boy Scout troop leader played by Patton Oswalt who is dead set on reviving his beloved organization. The scouts have apparently lost their youth appeal recently, and Oswalt’s character can’t seem to understand why (the film never mentions child molestation outright, but does poke fun at overprotective parents). His brother, played by Johnny Knoxville, is on the exact opposite side. He spent his childhood being dragged outdoors by his dad, and now can’t understand why ANYONE would want to go camping.

Neither is receptive to the other’s point of view, and it gets old pretty fast. As someone who avoids the outdoors like most people avoid ex-spouses, insurance salesmen, or death, I can still see the appeal to those who do enjoy rolling around in the dirt with snakes, mosquitoes, and killer bears. It’s just not for me, but it is absolutely appealing to others. The characters in Nature Calls see the subjective matter as black and white. Why? I guess to make the script work.

But it still doesn’t. Heaped on top of the two leads’ character flaws is a tone that doesn’t know what level to hit. The vulgarity and violence say this is a movie for adults, but the simple moral (“Go outside kids!”) and multiple youths in the cast make it seem like it could be a kids movie. It doesn’t work as either, and I blame the lack of focus for ruining both of the film’s ambitions.

One highlight — Rob Riggle. The former Marine has popped up in more supporting comedic roles over the past two years than any other actor I can think of. I’ve always found him amusing, and even laugh-out-loud funny on occasion, but most of the time I just felt he wasn’t in the right role. He is here (somehow, considering he’s still a pretty big jackass), and he steals every scene. He also attended the screening with director Todd Rohal and single-handedly saved it from incredible awkwardness. After the moderator stepped aside immediately and a few audience questions bombed, Rohal tried to keep the conversation going by asking his own questions to the cast. Riggle then sent the crowd into hysterics with a well-timed and intentioned, “What the fuck is with these questions?”. It may not have saved the film, but it sent the crowd out with a smile.

So who gets the “Film Champion of the Day” award? As much as I love a well-executed comedy, I’m going to have to hand the trophy to The Hunter. I went into all three films with high expectations, and Nettheim’s movie was the only one to meet them consistently (Do-Deca’s stumble out of the gate may have cost it the race!). Check back in tomorrow when two comedies with opposite budgets face off. It’s Frankie Go Boom vs. 21 Jump Street (hint: don’t bet against C Tates).