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AUSTIN, Texas - As with any big film festival, the variety of choices that attendees have at South by Southwest seems endless. But at the Austin festival, the general cinephilia of the locals seeps into the programming, and as a result, its schedule is populated with a truly eclectic and unusual range of movies.
Having barely survived the first weekend of SXSW – which not only included a gauntlet of screenings and interviews but a Daylight-Savings changeover that resulted in the loss of an hour of sleep – things relievedly slowed down a bit on Monday, and I was able to attend screenings of several films that were each noteworthy for different reasons.
The first of these was “Funeral Kings,” which seemed promising because it received rave responses from several colleagues after it was screened over the weekend. Directed by Kevin and Matthew McManus, the film follows a trio of teenage boys who encounter adolescent trials both typical and traumatic as they suffer through the process of growing up. Alex Maizus plays a potty-mouthed 14-year-old named Charlie, an instigator who torments transfer student David (Jordan Puzzo) and enlists his far more reasonable friend Andy (Dylan Hartigan) in schemes that involve infiltrating a local video store in order to steal a movie in which David stars, as well as any available porn they can find. After a ne’er-do-well kid dumps a box at Andy’s en route to juvenile hall, the three boys pry it open and start exploring a Pandora’s box of teenage temptations, from dirty magazines to fireworks to firearms.
Unfortunately, the detail that goes into defining these kids’ interactions with one another (and the world around them) works at cross purposes with the plot, which eventually involves another older kid, a gun they find and the video store proprietor (Kevin Corrigan) who runs a few illicit businesses from the back room. Consequently, when the trio is trying to meet girls, grow up too fast and simply find their way into the world of adulthood, the movie works like gangbusters; but anytime it veers into a suburban underworld of misbehavers and miscreants, it starts to feel false, especially when the McManuses use cheap tricks like having kids clumsily handling guns in order to generate drama. An admittedly more intimate version of the “Good Will Hunting” that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck might have made if they hadn’t been talked out of adding government conspiracies to their fertile character study, “Funeral Kings” proves disappointing because it depicts kids coming of age without coming to terms with much at all, much less while combining all of the script’s various story strands.
Next up was “Bernie,” Richard Linklater’s account of a genteel funeral director who gets caught up in a murder after he makes friends with a domineering septuagenarian. Jack Black gives a performance that’s not only entertaining but important to his career playing the title character, whose generosity gets transformed into exasperation by a wealthy widow who befriends him before basically making him her slave. The often manic comedian dials down his idiosyncrasies and constructs a carefully-drawn portrait of a person who’s smart, sensitive and seemingly harmless, but who succumbs to a moment of madness from which nobody believes he’s guilty of, even after he confesses.
Interspersing fictional recreations with interviews with real people from the Texas town where the crime really occurred, Linklater creates an odd, unique and intriguing portrait of Bernie that’s both honest and occasionally hilarious. Meanwhile, Linklater’s longtime collaborator Matthew McConaughey gives a great turn as a district attorney who’s the only person convinced that Bernie must be convicted, finding all of the larger-than-life notes that make his character such compelling viewing, but also giving his quest for justice a legitimacy and a context that amounts to more than grandstanding. Ultimately, it’s less emotionally engaging than one might expect from material taken from real events, but “Bernie” is a perfectly entertaining film that gives Jack Black better and more interesting things to do than star in simplistic and silly tentpole comedies that offer him few challenges.
Finally, I was able to check out “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” an amazing documentary that deconstructs fandom via the process of the filmmaker following his childhood idol. Paul Williams was, among other things, the writer of “The Rainbow Connection,” but he wrote hundreds of amazing, award-winning songs in the 1970s before sort of dropping off the radar in the 1980s. Commercial director Stephen Kessler tracks down Williams in an effort to get close to the legend, only to discover that his subject is more – and less – than he expects, and the two quickly develop a tenuous friendship that tears down his long-held expectations and puts something else in its place. Kessler’s discovery of what that is becomes part of the story, and the two men bounce back and forth as they find an equilibrium both on film and in each other’s lives.
Although Kessler is obviously a huge fan of the singer-songwriter, he never seems to refrain from depicting Williams when he’s doing something unflattering. But what proves amazing is how Williams’s own perspective on his hedonistic, drug-fueled years of success helps him escape the audience’s judgment, even as it allows them to see him for what and who he really is. That said, Kessler’s insertion of himself into the film sometimes feels self-indulgent and overshadows some of the details that might have been more interesting about Williams’s life, but finding the balance between observing his subject and acknowledging his bias becomes the actual theme of the film. A terrific time-capsule for folks unfamiliar with Williams’s work as well as an incisive look (self-examination even) of the divide between idolizing our heroes and exposing their humanity, “Still Alive” is a tender and thoughtful portrait of a friendship born from fandom. It celebrates both the incredible artistry of a musician whose pedigree seems painfully unacknowledged now.
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