SXSW Day One: "The Square," "The Snake," and "Ong Bak 2"
Australian film noir, eating disorders, and unholy asskicking on the first day of the fest
Okay, then. That is how you kick off a festival.
Like I said in my earlier update, my Thursday was all about getting to Austin. I was dizzy from being exhausted by the time I went to sleep last night, so when I got up today, I wasn't really sure what the hell was going on. 42 hours awake and then nine hours of sleep don't really add up to "fully rested". Even so, once I got out of bed, it was pretty much time to head to the convention center to get everything started. I'm staying with my friend Aaron and his lovely wife Kaela, and we drove into downtown, dealing with truly wretched traffic thanks to the combination of SXSW, spring break, and the rain. She dropped us at the Radisson and took off, and we went in to find Ain't It Cool's Quint, who was doing an interview there.
I've never bumrushed an interview before, but we sort of stumbled right into the middle of Quint's conversation with filmmaker Nash Edgerton. The name didn't ring a bell for me, but when I saw him, I started getting this feeling that I recognized him, but it still wasn't quite connecting for me. Aaron and I sat down, trying to be quiet and stay out of Quint's way. As soon as I heard Nash mention "Spider," though, the lightbulb went off over my head. I saw "Spider." I love "Spider." Why? Well, check it out for yourself...
[more after the jump]
See what I mean? That's a great short film, and until today, I had no idea how the big gag in it was accomplished. Once I realized who Nash was, I jumped into the conversation because I had to ask. I give Quint credit... he didn't yell at me at all. The conversation quickly became a free-for-all, and we picked his brain about that film, another short of his called "Lucky," his work as a stuntman on films like "Attack Of The Clones" (he doubled Obi-Wan in the Jango Fett fight), and all sorts of random geekery. By the time we finished talking to him, I had changed my mind about my schedule for the day and decided to go check out Nash's film, which was only set to play one time during the fest.
So glad I went. "The Square," written by Matthew Dabner and Joel Edgerton (Nash's brother, better known as Uncle Lars in the "Star Wars" prequels), is a classic film noir set up and structure, but shot in a way that never once tries to ape the look or feel of traditional noir. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course... I love noir, and I can totally understand the urge to pay tribute to it. But "The Square" is more like Sam Raimi's "A Simple Plan," a film in which one bad decision leads to another and another and another, a spiral of shit that's impossible to escape once you're in it. In this case, the film starts with a pair of cars parked by a river. In one, two dogs sit by the windows, looking at something. In the other car, a man and woman have quick, furtive sex. Ray (David Roberts) and Carla (Claire van der Boom) barely have time for a post-boink cuddle before she has to take off to get home to her husband. And from this simple, familiar quandry... two married people having an affair... a nerve-wracking web of misfortune unfolds. And saying anything else about the plot would be criminal, because part of the pleasure of the film is watching how things happen, watching how each choice, no matter how right it seems at the time, seems to drag Ray down even more. David Roberts has a great movie face, and he makes a perfect protagonist in the film. You have no idea what he's capable of, and you get the sense that he doesn't either until he has to face each of these situations. The entire cast is very good, very low-key and real. And Edgerton's direction is a marvel, tight and smart and wicked mean. I sincerely hope that "The Square" gets picked up by an American distributor soon, because I think there's a real audience for this one. It's that perfect combination of a film that critics are going to love to dig in and discuss, and audiences are going to love because it's just plain entertaining. And just like with "Spider," there's a great uneasy mix of tension and humor that makes this feel like a real original.
And when you see it? Keep one eye peeled for a hilarious reference to "Spider." I howled.
A few months ago, Patton Oswalt sent me a DVD of a film and told me not to look it up, not to read anything about it, but just to watch it. I tried, and unfortunately, the disc crapped out on me about twenty minutes again. Tonight, Patton introduced that film at the Alamo, and I finally got my chance to see "The Snake."
Good god, Eric Kutner and Adam Goldstein are evil.
Now, admittedly, the build-up Patton gave it in his intro made me think we were going to see something akin to "Salo." And it's not that. But the film does have an inherent "OHMYGOD!" factor, and it's going to make it a tough sit for some audiences. I am almost ashamed of myself for laughing as much as I did at some of the wretched behavior on display. Adam Goldstein stars as Ken, aka The Snake. He's a bit of a cartoon character, visually, and the film opens with him hitting on every single woman in a bar. He's crass about it, too. He ends up actually making out with a cute girl for a while, but when one of his friends teases Ken about being a "chubby chaser," Ken freaks out and refuses to go home with her. She's not remotely chubby, though. It's just his friends busting his balls a bit. Ken takes it seriously, though, and the next day, he sees a girl in a coffee shop who looks like she weighs about 100 pounds. He follows her, sees her go into a building called "The Women's Building," and then goes in after her. Turns out, she's in a support group for people with body image disorders because she's dangerously bulimic. Ken decides to join the support group so he can fuck her, and then... well, then things start getting truly sleazy. The thing that makes Goldstein's performance such a high-wire act is the way he plays this reprehensible human being, but without ever crossing the line into being completely unlikable. There's something about him that makes even the grossest comment (like when he brags to a friend about his bulimic girlfriend that "she has no gag reflex") seem amiable and harmless. There are some gasp-out-loud jokes in the film, and some hilarious moments, but it's not a film that I think will have a real theatrical life. It's super low-budget, shot on video, and I think that's something that will work better at home. I also think this is that rare case where some people, even if they're amused, will be afraid to laugh in a theater because of how grim the subject matter is. I think people might be more comfortable at home, with friends. It's not 100% successful, and I think the abrupt ending is actually a little off-putting. I get the point, but I think it could have been communicated in a different way. It's almost a throw-away here, and it's the one moment in the film where Ken almost acts like a decent human being. Still, "The Snake" is a worthwhile view for anyone who likes their comedy jet black.
The last event of the evening was the international film festival premiere of "Ong Bak 2," directed by and starring martial arts sensation Tony Jaa. Since this was part of the special "SXSW Presents Fantastic Fest at Midnight" series, Tim League came out to intro the film, and it was another of Tim's absolutely hilarious festival appearances. Seriously... can you think of any other theater owner who routinely dresses up in outrageous costumes, puts on pyrotechnic displays and beer-chugging contests and crazy karaoke parties, all in the name of turning every screening into an event? Because I can't. Tim's a showman, and it helps that he is absolutely fearless in front of a crowd. He'll do anything, say anything... whatever it takes to pump the audience up.
And "Ong Bak 2" more than lived up to the introduction. Tony Jaa was the star of the first film, but this time out, he's in full control, and despite his breakdown halfway through filming and his weird Col. Kurtz-like sabaatical in the jungles of Thailand, he eventually finished the film. It doesn't really make complete sense as a narrative, but the bare bones are there. A young man's mother and father are killed, he escapes, is captured by slavers, rescued, and trained to be a warrior bandit. Once he's an adult, he goes after the people who killed his parents. That sounds simple enough, but it's the way Jaa tells the story, and the fact that the film ends just as all the pieces are starting to drop into place, leaving us with a tease for part three instead of any real resolution feels to me like a result of that breakdown more than any real storytelling choice. No matter, though. The film works on the level that it has to work, as a piece of visceral action cinema, and if you're a martial arts fan at all, you have to see this movie. Jaa is the most electrifying action star working today, and there are fights in this film that are amazing, end to end. One of the reasons I love his Thailand stunt team is because they are all obviously completely insane, willing to endure whatever close-contact brutality they have to in order to make a shot look great. Everything here looks like no punches are pulled. I'm surprised anyone survived these fights, Jaa in particular. He takes an unholy amount of abuse in the film, and especially in the final fight, which is about fifteen solid minutes of madness.
The biggest changes from the first film to this one are (A) this is a period piece, set in Thailand's distant past and (B) this time, Tony Jaa incorporates weapons into his fighting style. Swords and crazy three-stick-nunchuks and knives and explosives... Jaa uses a lot more than just his fists this time out. Of course, strip him of the weapons and he's still incredible, but there's something really crazy about the swordplay here and the way they mix in these new disciplines. It ratchets up the sense of danger signficantly, and Jaa looks like he's really been training to make sure all the weapon play is as phenomenal as his hand-to-hand stuff.
And, yes, there's a third one already in production, so the insane cliffhanger here will be answered. That's good news... I just hope it's not a long wait, because this one feels truly incomplete.
I've got to go pick up a rental car in a few hours, then head downtown again to interview Jon Favreau. I'll have more updates from the fest for you tomorrow, as well as more articles all weekend long. Keep checking in, and I'll see you back here soon.
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