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Stars, documentaries expected to shine at SXSW Film Conference and Festival

Chris Vognar
Dallas Morning News (MCT)

AUSTIN, Texas — The SXSW Film Conference and Festival was once considered a small fry compared with the gargantuan club-and-industry hop that makes up SXSW Music. These days the tunes are still the big draw, but the little cousin gets bigger and better every time out.

Case in point: Last March, a little war movie called "The Hurt Locker" made its Lone Star bow at SXSW. Sunday night it capped a whirlwind year by taking home six Oscars, including best picture and best director (Kathryn Bigelow).

We obviously can't predict that this year's installment of the fest, which kicks off Friday and runs through March 20, will yield such a success story. But we can promise we'll be there to find out, and we can point out some of the films, people and events we're looking forward to seeing in Austin.

Opening night features the kind of movie that was born to premiere in genre-happy Austin: "Kick-Ass," Matthew Vaughn's profane, rock-'em, sock-'em adaptation of the Mark Millar-John Romita Jr. comic book. The story of a teen nobody (Aaron Johnson) who takes his superhero fanaticism to dangerous new levels, the film also stars Nicolas Cage as a crime fighter with a caped-crusader complex and a big chip on his shoulder. The principals (sans Cage) will also be featured in a panel discussion at 11 a.m. Saturday.

If that's not your thing, the other big opening-night attraction is "Leaves of Grass." Tim Blake Nelson's film is about twin brothers — one a professor, the other a pot dealer, both played by Edward Norton — making moves in their native Oklahoma. Both Norton and Nelson will be in town.

Acting threesomes don't get much richer than Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray. They star in "Get Low," a backwoods tale of an unpopular old codger (Duvall) who wants to plan his own funeral — while he's still alive. The Sundance favorite shows at 7 p.m. Wednesday; the cast is expected to attend.

If you can't find a documentary to meet your interests at SXSW, you probably aren't interested in much. Subjects include the gay subculture of bears ("Bear Nation"); troubled NBA star Allen Iverson ("No Crossover: Allen Iverson"); cab drivers in Beijing ("Beijing Taxi"); the mercurial pop and world music star David Byrne ("Ride, Rise Roar"); Houston's storied Kashmere Stage Band ("Thunder Soul"); and plenty more that prove truth is often more fun than fiction.

The SXSW panels and conversations are usually as worthwhile as the films. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez will share secrets of genre filmmaking at the "Directing the Dead" panel (12:30 p.m. Saturday). Director Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") will hold forth with film critic-radio host Elvis Mitchell (12:30 p.m. Sunday). Aspiring filmmakers can check out sessions on everything from new media distribution strategies to creating a hot graphic novel property.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

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Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

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