Stepping in for Nick thanks to his ludicrous schedule that I’m willing to bet has brought up no less than 27 ponderings of suicide, I headed over to the Long Center for the day’s first screening of Before I Disappear, an expansion on the 2012 Oscar winning short film Curfew. Curfew was a masterfully subtle and intimately scaled short that captured director Shawn Christensen’s sense of smirking humor while maintaining a beauty and elegance. Before I Disappear adds context to the motivations of Curfew, but its ambiguous nature still leaves questions up for interpretation.
Before I Disappear opens with Richie (writer/director Shawn Christensen) suspended in the blood-tinged water of his tub as he attempts to end his own life. A voiceover composing a final letter to a former lover gives us the first glimpse of the source of Richie’s distress, and we soon discover the event that has pushed him over the edge. The previous night reveals Richie’s discovery of a hauntingly beautiful woman overdosed in a bathroom stall at the sleazy club where he works, and the consequential unceremonious disposal as his boss covers up the incident. Emotionless in the tub, Richie seems ready to drift off to whatever awaits beyond, but then the phone rings. His estranged sister Maggie (Shameless star Emmy Rossum) needs him to watch her daughter Sophia (the multi-talented Fatima Ptacek) and she needs him to do it right now, no questions asked. Richie at first seems irritated that his endgame plans have been delayed and acts like he watches over Sophia out of obligation, but as the night continues they both reach out to the other for a connection.
Before I Disappear continues this festival’s theme of films taking directions I did not anticipate. It not only expands the story of Curfew, but Christensen uses the opportunity to explore instances of a more dreamlike state and let viewers deduce certain details for themselves. In some ways Before I Disappear is an improvement on Curfew. Emmy Rossum, world’s greatest crier and in my opinion the finest actress on television right now, is a welcome addition to the cast, and I can’t give enough praise to Christensen for more than holding his own in scenes opposite her. Initially a concern for Christensen was that Fatima Ptacek would age too much before the feature would be completed, but her older age is actually an advantage as the precocious little girl is gone and a more confident and impressively talented youth has emerged. There are also glaring flaws in this feature length debut. The use of voiceovers is prevalent and begins to feel grating and preachy every time it resurfaces. There are also little instances where it seems a little subtlety would have gone a long way instead of the eye-roll inducing in your face symbolism that feels borderline condescending. Before I Disappear’s ability to switch tones quickly and effectively allow it to succeed modestly, but a more consistent approach may have allowed the film to accomplish a more complete emotional connection.
Up next I biked over to The Paramount for Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter with high anticipations. I’ve heard fantastic things about the Zellner brothers’ previous film Kid-Thing and I positively adore star Rinko Kikuchi for her work in The Brothers Bloom. The film feature Rinko in the title role of Kumiko, a withdrawn, shy woman living a life in Japan that utterly bores her, but she leads a secret life outside of the job she resents and the co-workers she can’t stand, a secret life that provides a sense of meaning and belonging, and reveals a longing for adventure and discovery. Kumiko is a treasure hunter. Kumiko has become obsessed with the fictional buried money in the film Fargo, and believes she can find the treasure if she had the chance to embark on a journey to the frigid white landscape of Minnesota. Kumikio thinks she has planned and theorized every minute detail of where the treasure could be, and fed up with her dull lonely life in Japan she takes the final plunge and leaves for Fargo.
Above all else Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a truly beautiful film. The Zellner brothers showcase their talents immediately with an experienced and masterful vision. The opening sequence of the film shows a gorgeous and exotic side of Japan that is rarely explored on film, which is later sharply contrasted to the empt
y snow covered frontier of Minnesota. I cannot stress the power of Kumiko’s cinematography and scope enough; this is a fucking stunning film. Kumiko is more than just a good-looking movie, though. Rinko brings a believable naivety and fragility to Kumiko alone in essentially an alien world, and gives a soft and subtle performance of strength and determination as she refuses to give up on her treasure. What really made the film work for me though was that Kumiko’s desire is not for the money in any way. She seems to barely grasp the concept of money and expenses, and certainly couldn't care less about spending it. The treasure at the end of Kumiko’s hunt is simply the experience she lived in tackling this adventure fearlessly.
I had previously missed out on the first showing of the Australian time travel comedy The Infinite Man, but received my chance at redemption on day five. Dean (Josh McConville) is an off the charts genius, a creative inventor, and a total control freak who is insistent upon creating down to the minutest detail the perfect weekend for his impressively patient girlfriend Lana (Hanah Marshall). They return to the same beachside hotel where they stayed for their anniversary last year and immediately Dean’s carefully constructed plans are foiled. The hotel is closed down and abandoned, and we first witness the neurosis that goes into Dean’s obsessive planning.
Determined to make the best of the situation they continue on with their romantic plans when Lana’s delusional and hilariously self-obsessed ex-boyfriend Terry (Alex Dimitriades) shows up to ruin their anniversary. Dean tries to confront him and instead finds himself on the receiving end of a cattle prod and overhears something he can’t believe, as Lana seems to leave him behind to go to the beach with Terry. Heartbroken and betrayed we find Dean a year later still at the hotel with a complicated and ominous device he’s constructed looming in the background. He calls Lana begging her to return, that things will be different this time. Unbelievably Lana arrives and so begins the warped and hysterical journey through time as Dean convinces Lana to return to last year’s moment to change things.
I can easily see The Infinite Man taking home an audience award at SXSW. This is exactly the type of film this crowd eats up, and I’m right there with them. Think the confusion of Primer meets the morality of Scott Pilgrim with charming physical comedic quirks that never feel disingenuous. The Infinite Man successfully balances its multifaceted genres with the logic and suspense of the film never scarified for the laughs or romance and vice versa. Director Hugh Sullivan has created a film that states its purpose from the get go, but sustains the audience’s investment and interest while providing consistent laughs throughout. Alex Dimitriades as the aloof Terry is a scene-stealer whose mere presence caused the audience to cheer and cackle, and McConville as Dean does an excellent job of remaining likeable in what could have easily slipped into the train wreck of a despicably pathetic character. I don’t want to say much more as The Infinite Man is a film best viewed with as little information as possible, but it has easily won me over as one of my personal favorites of the fest.
After The Infinite Man the laughs continued as I headed over to Comedy Living Room’s SXSW show. I went primarily for headliner Chris Gethard, but found myself captivated by the opening musical act of Imaginary Radio Program with Drennon Davis and Nick Stargu. Davis is most well known for the explosion of “bro humor” associated with shows such as Workaholics, where hilariously its own audience isn’t quite in on the joke. It played very well with this intimate crowd at the Brazos Lofts that appreciated both sides of the fun and catchy tunes, but were fully aware of the playfully facetious nature. Karen Kilgariff had a highly unusual set where the only source of humor seemed to originate from the completely awkward atmosphere her songs were generating, but the crowd rolled with it and seemed to appreciate that she at least wasn’t afraid to try something different. Adam Cayton-Holland, Nate Bargatze, and Sean O'Connor all had solid sets with particularly big laughs riffing on a reoccurring bit mocking the event’s sponsor, e-cig company Plume.
Then in walked Byron Bowers. Bowers always seems to look like he just stumbled onto a stage accidentally but is totally fine with it. His punch lines stumble out of his mouth in a manner that appears like he is unaware he just made a joke, but then bursts of high energy during his build up create this perfectly chaotic storm. I’ve never seen someone deliver awkwardness so deliberately and gracefully that it creates a sense of intimacy. Bowers paced the room slowly, walked across couches, and made direct eye contact with an audience member every time he heard so much as a giggle. His shows feel almost conversational as he is so clearly at ease even when dropping lines so dark the room starts to squirm. Bowers wrapped up his set in an appropriately unceremonious manner, and Gethard came out for his closing bit. Except a lighthearted attempt to work the crowd snowballed into an endless spree of riffing as all his material went out the door. Gethard spent the entirety of his set asking audience members to name animals and he would comment on if he would hang out with said animal “if, yo
u know, it was like a dude”. The riffs were genuinely funny themselves, but the crowd, which included his TCGS castmates, was in tears over the heightened sense of how perfectly ludicrous everything was.
My final screening for the day was V/H/S director Adam Wingard’s newest genre flick The Guest. Last year I was less than kind to Wingard and writer Simon Barrett for their lackluster effort in V/H/S 2, but I do believe Wingard is talented and had faith in The Guest. I was wrong. So, so wrong. The plot centers around a family whose military son has died while on active duty, and a mysterious stranger claiming to be a close war buddy shows up on their doorstep. Bad things happen. There it is; that’s all you need to know.
Look I get it, it’s a genre film, it doesn’t have to be an Oscar-winning screenplay but Barrett’s dialogue caused me to immediately dispel whatever expectations I had before the opening scene was finished. I quickly ordered a stiff drink and hunkered down, prepared to just power through the film. Then something incredible happened. Everything changed. All of a sudden, The Guest turned into a straight up Road House tribute. I was in. I got the tone, the cheesy dialogue, everything; it was perfect. Wingard showed his clear love for the '80s action exploitation films with hard hitting and satisfyingly appropriate over the top gruesome fight scenes featuing slick quick cutting shots and a constant ballsy smirk across the face of the “more than he appears” lead Dan Stevens. If only that tone had carried throughout the film.
Instead, Wingard attempts to tackle and blend countless other throwback genres with weirdly out of place Halloween imagery that seemed to only serve for a spooky setting for the climatic finale. It’s a hot mess that seems to throw even the cast off, as Lance Reddick as the opposition to Stevens looks wholly uncomfortable even holding a gun. It’s a frustrating film for me more than just a bad one. Wingard is clearly a talented guy behind the camera, and I think last year’s You’re Next is the finest American horror film in years. There are so many glimpses of Wingard and Barrett’s sense of humor and understanding of the genre, but they seem content to produce a muddled mess that entertains only themselves.
As soon as the first word of the closing credits rolled I hightailed it out of there and made a straight sprint across the street for one of my favorite musicians to see live. Daniel James is most well known in Austin for music collective Cowboy and Indian, a band whose biggest problem is that its constantly rotating cast of musicians is too talented to lock down. However, it’s James’s first band out of San Francisco, Leopold and His Fiction that has shone so brightly the past few years. The band has a more upbeat and, bluesy sound than the primarily folk-based Cowboy and Indian counterpart. My favorite thing about seeing Leopold and His Fiction play live is that whether it’s a sold out show or five people in the audience, James always looks like he’s having a blast up on stage. The night finally wrapped up around 2 am after a fast paced set with a small crowd consisting mostly of friends and hardcore fans excited to welcome back the SF musician they’ve adopted as the hometown boy.
Nate Abernethy is a magical sprite we captured and forced to do film reviews. He somehow also wound up with a twitter account @NateAbernethy