The first day of SXSW is always a crapshoot. If you're not a native Austinite, it's a day that gets wasted on familiarizing yourself with your surroundings, and either answering or avoiding the siren's call of all the swag tents lining the streets. If you're an Austin resident, it winds up getting devoted to familiarizing any non-Austin friends you have while also reacclimating yourself to the SXSW climate. At last year's SXSW, Dylan Garsee and I basically stuck to the big premiers and avoided any other firm plans, but this year we got a little more ambitious and kicked our day off with live action Mario Karting.
Situated in the back space of the Palmer Events Center, Austin's most unnecessary convention center, Pennzoil's attempts to make Mario Kart a real life activity was surreal and set the tone for the rest of the day. After standing in a line that did not move an inch for an hour, the CB crew of Dylan, Shaun Spalding, Andrew Tan and myself eventually figured out there was a press line, which we immediately relocated to, much to the dissatisfaction of the woman in the line parallel to us. There were signs warning us that we would need to blow into a breathalyzer before we could drive, but unfortunately we didn't get to experience that. Instead we were led away and told that every group of four could only have one of each character, so Dylan quickly seized a Princess Peach helmet, while Shaun and Andrew became Mario and Luigi and I wound up as Bowser. The Nintendo volunteers gave us racing do-rags to “keep our heads from getting too sweaty,” and then left us to our own devices to snap selfies of our new Mario Kart identities before reemerging when a supervisor harassed them about a video they were supposed to play for us.
At that point, we were ushered into a tent where we watched a bizarre safety video that looked like it was shot in 1995 and prominently featured the same clip of a man driving a kart in reverse as well as a stern warning about the “black flag.” One of the volunteers was so baffled by the video she told us we could just leave since it looked like we “pretty much had it down.” The rules of live Mario Karting were then explained to us: there are five Pennzoil icons on the track and if you hit all five you get a free shirt, but if you run over a turtle shell your kart slows down. We were also warned several times not to bump other karts or the walls, and if we did, one of our Pennzoil icons would be taken away from us. Then we were ushered into our Mario Karts, which were conveniently outfitted with several GoPros that would apparently be filming our race.
All that build-up might make you think we created our own Mario-style version of Days of Thunder, but the experience wasn't much like racing or Mario Kart. We did slow loops and tried to hit rubbery stickers on a makeshift track while politely avoiding one another. Then my GoPro fell off and volunteers shut down our karts and swarmed mine, demanding to know where the GoPro went. Once the GoPro was secured (I was fine, too), we were allowed a couple more slow loops before getting herded back to the pit. The only problem was that Andrew, our Luigi, was missing, which resulted in another Keystone Kops moment as volunteers shouted “Where's our Luigi?! Where's Green Kart?!” in their radios. It was as exciting as riding a tricycle in the driveway, but with the added bonus of forced branding.
I had left my afternoon wide open on purpose, but the Mario Kart “experience” and the quest for a decent lunch shortened my free time, so I wound up heading straight to the first screening of the day, the premier of That Guy Dick Miller. Dick Miller is a legendary character actor whose face multiple generations likely immediately recognize, though they're far less likely to know his name. One of the original actors that made up Roger Corman's not-really-a-stock-company, Miller received early attention thanks to his part in the campy Beatnik horror film Bucket of Blood, where he plays Walter Paisley, a basically good but clueless guy who ends up murdering animals and people and turning them into statues, to the acclaim of the Beatniks that populate the cafe he serves at. Thanks to that role and Miller's performances in other Corman classics like War of the Satellites and Little Shop of Horrors, Miller became a lucky charm for the crop of new directors that Corman brought out from the NYU film school in the '70s, most notably Joe Dante. Dante placed Miller in nearly all of his films, but it was Miller's role as Murray Futterman in the Gremlins films that immortalized him for a new generation of film fans.
With origins as a DVD bonus feature, That Guy Dick Miller is a no-frills, straightforward bio-doc, but that's fitting given Miller's charming everyman persona. There's a clear love to the doc, and to the interviews with directors, screenwriters and actors who worked with Miller, and that passion enables what could have been a light documentary to become a heartfelt exploration of the art of acting and how cinema's evolution has come in some ways at the cost of people like Miller. Miller by no means come across as a bitter old man (though his subtle indignation at being cut from Pulp Fiction indicates Miller has plenty of Hollywood war stories he could tell) but when he speaks about how Hollywood no longer has “giants,” actors like Cagney and Gable, it's easy to understand where he's coming from. Guys like Miller were experts at charming audiences and making the most of even the smallest, dumbest parts and that skill shows why he's had such a long, unique career. But That Guy Dick Miller isn't just a cinematic love story, it's also a beautiful exploration of two people who have never stopped loving one another, as Miller's wife Lainie has stuck by his side almost since the start, and even helped produce the film. Though it's unabashedly a film lover's film, That Guy Dick Miller's twin love stories are captivating; this is the kind of documentary that forces you to become as entranced by its subjects as its filmmakers are.
Far less romantic but no less captivating was Wetlands, a German adaptation of Charlotte Roche's divisive novel about a young woman obsessed with her body and all its secretions. Wetlands blew the minds of Sundance with its frank exploration of young female sexuality and the idea that women can be just as dirty as the filthiest of men. The bulk of the reporting on it has been blindsided by its “ick factor,” which is a shame because it's a powerful exploration of the warfare being waged over control of female bodies, making it perhaps the most topical film playing at a film festival in the capital of a state that has be
come a prime battleground for gender equality. David Wnent directs the film in a style that recalls Neil Jordan's work on Breakfast on Pluto, complete with hazy voiceovers and fantastical imagery, but stylish diversions aside, this film absolutely belongs to Carla Juri, the 27 year old actress who plays Helen, the teenager whose unhygienic proclivities the film centers around. Juri has stated elsewhere that she took the role in part because some critics claimed whoever played Helen would be “disgraced,” and it's easy to see that she shares a ferocious mischievousness with Helen. But Juri brings real humanity to a role that could have veered into exploitation territory, honing in on the daring yet vulnerable personality of Helen and achieving a truly phenomenal performance in the process.
Wetlands is a film that is best viewed without preconceptions or judgment, similar to other twists on romantic comedies, like Audition. The plot is essentially secondary to the exploration of Helen's sexual appetites and need to experiment, but it goes down some unexpected dramatic roads and anyone who has written it off as a gross out flick with no real value is missing out. Wnent admittedly leans a little heavy on magical realism at moments, and at times the perspective of the film is needlessly cloudy, but this is a brave work that offers plenty of rewards for anyone who is willing to brave it. Like Cronenberg's Crash before it, this is an utterly unique exploration of human sexuality, but unlike that film, it is full of humanity and love for its characters, making for an incredibly rare combination of shock and heart.
Veering almost exclusively towards the shock end of things without the heart or narrative confidence, 13 Sins was my first big disappointment of SXSW. Helmed by Last Exorcism director Daniel Stamm, 13 Sins is eerily similar to previous SXSW favorite Cheap Thrills, crafting a story that explores how far one might go for financial stability. But where Cheap Thrills has a dark humor and an interesting, neon aesthetic, 13 Sins comes across as drab and visually bland. Those traits could have been overcome on their own, but the film seems confused about what it's even aiming for, with a half-assed global conspiracy angle inserted without much thought and a constantly shifting narrative voice that flits between humorous and straight-faced without much care. Ron Perlman is basically wasted as a gruff police detective whose allegiances are unknown until the end, while Mark Webber never really finds his footing as the film's homogenized lead. Worse, the dialogue is ham fisted and campy but not in a fun way; characters voice their motives and fears in clunky exchanges and a scene where Webber confronts a childhood bully comes across as incredibly forced rather than tense and frightening. I haven't seen the Thai film the movie is based off of, but I doubt it's as generically boring as this version.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter egos at Fitness and Pontypool.