Sarah Cohen rounds up her pick of the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas
Pick of the festival
Bobcat Goldthwait’s ‘God Bless America’ imagines what would happen if someone’s annoyance with our shallow, celebrity-obsessed culture reached boiling point. Middle-aged Frank is so incensed by the string of vacuous reality shows he’s bombarded with as he flicks through TV channels that he takes a shotgun and murders the teenage star of one such show. After teaming up with the girl’s misfit classmate – a cross between Hit Girl and a young Christina Ricci – the pair go on the rampage across America offing anyone they belive deserves to die. Talent show judges, ‘Juno’ scriptwriter Diablo Cody, people who high five... the list goes on and on. Coming across as the trans-Atlantic cousin of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’, ‘God Bless America’ is a smart and very funny state of the nation satire.
Francine has just been released from prison. We don’t know her crime or her back-story, but we can glean, from Melissa Leo’s (‘Frozen River’) outstanding, near-wordless performance, that this woman is desperate for connection. We watch her awkward interactions with workmates and well-meaning neighbours, but it’s only when she’s around animals that we see Francine relax. She works at a pet shop, stables and a vet’s surgery, taking in a succession of stray cats and dogs until her house is overrun. Francine is seemingly oblivious to the mess and chaos caused by these animals, and is similarly blinkered to the consequences of the action that lands her back in custody. Is she simply an over-zealous animal-lover, or a damaged human being unable to communicate with her own species? Either way, Leo plays her with skill and empathy throughout. ‘Francine’ is directed by Brian M Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky.
The award winners
A drama about teenage graffiti artists and a documentary portrait of drumming legend Ginger Baker won SXSW’s main jury prizes. ‘Gimme the Loot’ follows two sparky Bronx kids in their quest to wreak artistic revenge on a rival graffiti gang, with a lustrous New York City as their canvas. In ‘Beware of Mr Baker’ the likes of John Lydon, Marky Ramone, Femi Kuti and Charlie Watts pay tribute to the life of Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker (now living in South Africa) – and it’s more punk rock than his music might suggest.
Band of brothers
Spot the trend: several strong films at this year’s festival were created by duos of brothers. Most well-known of these are Jay and Mark Duplass, who co-wrote and directed ‘The Do-Deca Pentathlon’, a comedy about two estranged grown-up brothers who regress into childish competitiveness when they’re reunited (it was made before the Duplass brothers’ studio pictures ‘Cyrus’ and the forthcoming ‘Jeff Who Lives At Home’). Bill and Turner Ross are the filial team behind the bewitching quasi-documentary ‘Tchoupitoulas’. The camera follows three teenage brothers on a journey through the sights and sounds of late-night New Orleans. The visual style is dreamlike: there’s no plot or voiceover, just snatches of conversation and music drifting in and out of range. It’s utterly beguiling. Although not directly about brotherhood, ‘Kid-Thing’ and ‘Funeral Kings’ were also directed, produced and written by a pair of brothers.
SXSW showed a number of titles that premiered at Sundance in January – four of which are heading across the pond next month to screen at the festival’s new offshoot, Sundance London. ‘Safety Not Guaranteed’ is a touching time-travel comedy that’s not really about time travel. The documentary ‘Chasing Ice’ follows former climate change sceptic and National Geographic photographer James Balog to the Arctic, where he discovers evidence of shrinking glaciers. And then there are two excellent music docs. ‘Shut Up and Play the Hits’ juxtaposes euphoric footage of LCD Soundsystem’s last ever gig at Madison Square Garden with muted scenes of James Murphy going about his daily life the morning after. ‘Under African Skies’ celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album, chronicling the political stink he kicked up by breaking the United Nations boycott and working with South African musicians. All four films will play Sundance London at The O2, April 26 to 29.