AUSTIN, TX: SXSW isn’t the first in-person film festival I’ve attended since the arrival of COVID – I attended last summer’s mostly-outdoors hybrid iteration of the Tribeca Film Festival, as well as the stripped-down version of Fantastic Fest that snuck in between variants last fall. But we faithful attendees were waiting for SXSW to come back to life, since it was the first film fest casualty when COVID hit in March of 2020, and this was the first one that felt like it usually felt, with the exception of the masks in the audience (well, some of the audience, hahahaha I’m sure it’s fine): loud music, good food, and rowdy audiences taking in a slate with a slant towards genre.
The uncertainty of the festival circuit at the moment (mostly due to the unpredictability of said variants) made for a slightly slimmer slate than usual, and one with a bit more television than this attendee would’ve like. (TV has been part of the programming for a while, but who wants to go watch the pilot of some new show at a glorious movie palace like the Paramount?) But there were a handful of films that seemed made for a roaring-back-to-life SXSW, and chief among them was The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a Nicolas Cage meta-action-comedy that could’ve only been made with Cage – not just for the specific shout-outs to his weird career, but for the kind of gonzo presence he’s cultivated on-screen and off.
The screenplay, by Kevin Ettan and director Tom Gormican, works in the financial, professional, and personal woes that have defined Cage (at least in the tabloids) for the past several years into a story of a wealthy super-fan Javi (Pedro Pascal) who offers Cage a million bucks to come to his mansion in Spain and hang out for Javi’s birthday weekend. Unbearable Weight mostly works, thanks in no small part to the admirably game Pascal – he’s an underrated comic actor, as seen in a great little set piece with a wall climb on LSD, and a silly scene where he and Cage trade shoes (don’t ask). And, of course, Cage is magnificent, doing that specific thing that only he can do, of making his characters (even himself) both credibly grounded and absolutely bugfuck operatic.
Probably the quietest movie I saw was the Irish drama It Is In Us All, in which a slick young businessman zips into a small Irish village to check out the house he inherited, only to have a horrible car crash that leaves a local teen dead. It’s quite the homecoming. But there are weird vibes in the town, where his mother grew up and her sister lived her life, and he begins digging up some family history. Writer/director Antoina Campbell-Hughes is so good at setting the scene that it’s sort of exciting to spend this much of a movie not where it’s going, even if the tone is so muted as to be nearly opaque. But the flashes of emotions land with force, and Claes Bang does well in a Zoom-only role that’s nevertheless chilling.
The Bulgarian/French co-production Women Do Cry is a mighty tough sit, dealing as does with personal and political themes of real weight (AIDS, motherhood, familial betrayal, and more). Maria Bakalova (such a comic dynamo in the Borat sequel) is working in an entirely different key here, as a young woman, already a little unstable, who finds out her boyfriend is both married and HIV-positive. It’s a wrenching, gutsy performance – it is hard to watch her suffer like this – and the ensemble around her is equally strong as an extended family coming to terms with the limitations of their lives and the complexity of their relationships.
Bakalova also co-stars in Bodies Bodies Bodies, a fascinating attempt to combine two subgenres – the one-crazy-night comedy and the whodunit mystery – that are fundamentally incompatible. The former is marked by its shaggy looseness, an anything-goes spirit, and heavy improvisation; the latter requires drum-tightness, a discipline and commitment to the murder(s), the gathering of clues, the elimination of suspects.
They don’t really pull it off, but it’s fun to watch them try. Most of the fun comes via Lee Pace (as a blissfully Zen, too-old-for-the-room boyfriend) and Rachel Sinott as one of the core group of friends. Her performance here confirms what her leading turn in Shiva, Baby promised – she’s an absolute firecracker, the kind of performer who gets a laugh no matter what she’s saying or doing (“He’s a Libra Moon! That says a lot!”). Bakalova is a bit of a disappointment – not because she’s bad, but because her role relegates her to the straight woman (so to speak), which seems like a real waste of such a magnificent comic presence. But there are real laughs here, much of it born out of characters spouting social-justice dialogue in a life-or-death situation (“Don’t call her a psychopath, that’s so ableist!” “I understand, and I’m an ally”).
I knew less than nothing about skateboarding going into Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off, and only knew Tony Hawk as a name on a video game I hadn’t played. I mention these blind spots not as a point of snobbery (and certainly not pride), but to assure any potentially ignorant viewers like me that in spite of the fact that director Sam Jones is an amateur skateboarder himself, this is no inside job: you don’t have to have lived this life to love this movie. And I did.
That’s because it’s a character study, first and foremost – there is plenty on the history of skateboarding (as a profession, a sport, a culture), and the expected trove of thrilling archival footage and photos, and a supporting cast of colorful (and sometimes terrifying) characters in his orbit. But Jones is primarily interested in the demons that drove and haunted Hawk, and how he pursued excellence as a form of acceptance, only to find fame “the worst drug” that exacerbated his worst characteristics. And the closing scenes, grappling with the complications of continuing to endanger one’s body at such an advanced age (“We’re grandparents falling from the sky,” jokes one of his pals), is first funny, then philosophical, and then poignant.
In other words, the filmmaker grants the subject his complexity and flaws, which is not always the case. When Gabby Giffords and her husband, Senator Mark Kelly, entered the theater before Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, the audience erupted in a standing ovation – a warm moment, but also a pretty efficient encapsulation of the film that followed.
There’s much in it to admire. Giffords was a businesswoman turned politician, a U.S. Representative for Arizona, who was targeted and nearly killed by a mass shooter in 2011, and the film’s most powerful footage is Kelly’s private videos of her speech and physical therapy and recovery, which are especially jarring when seen up against her rise-to-fame opening credit montage. But directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West rarely delve much deeper than that; the filmmakers also helped RBG and Julia, among others, and their approach to their subjects is so reverential that the film ends up playing like an extended campaign ad, from the corny music cues to the pretty pictures. We never really get a sense of knowing the subject at all, and so Gabby Giffordsmostly feels like a missed opportunity.
The same intersection of good intentions and poor choices hampers Still Working 9 to 5, a look back at the culture that gave birth to the hit 1980 comedy, and its lasting cultural imprint. It’s good to see its stars again (all three leads, and Dabney Coleman to boot), and they dig up some fun behind-the-scenes and promotional footage (“It’s a movie about secretaries fantasizing about murdering their bosses.” “So it’s not a political statement… is it?”). But the hyper-detailed history of the movie has a DVD bonus feature quality, while the history of the ERA, equal pay, and feminism in general is shallow and glancing (with some truly embarrassing stock footage and music choices). It’s simultaneously too big and too small.
My most unique experience of the week was the late-opening-night screening of 32 Sounds, “a documentary film about sound” – kinda like a film version of a “Radiolab” episode – from filmmaker Sam Green. On our way in, each audience member was handed a pair of headphones; the film’s sound was blasted into those cans as well as the speakers of Austin’s Paramount Theater. I’m typically resistant to the VR/immersive/whatever “experiences” of film festivals (I’m there to see movies, and can be a bit of a stick in the mud on this point, see above) but something about this one was inviting and enjoyable.
As you’d guess from the title, Green works his was through a series of numbered sounds (starting, appropriately enough, with the sound of the womb), using each one an entry point for an exploration of not only itself but how it is made, what it symbolizes, and ultimately, what these sounds tell us about how we live our lives, talking to scientists, foley artists, and various experts. There are visuals to match (one of the first is a tree falling in the forest without making a sense), along with instructions (“Go ahead and close your eyes. I’ll tell you when to open them”) and interruptions like a “five minute dance interlude.” It’s relaxing, sometimes deceptively so (full disclosure: I may have nodded off a time or two, but they assured me at the beginning that this was ok). But that 90 or so minutes of sitting in a giant movie palace, listening to a film in our headphones, became – consciously or not – a potent metaphor for the last two years, and the time we’ve spent simultaneously isolated and together.