Still from 'Small Town Crime'
SXSW Film 2017: Day Two
It rains in Texas, I have now discovered. Yes, this should not have come as a surprise, but back in the UK it’s this mystical place of permanent sun. Well, not today because the heavens opened and rarely let up. I also had nothing waterproof on me which made queuing a more problematic experience. I ended up either arriving really early as the very front of the line was under cover, or for one film, waiting until the ever-growing number of people snaked up to a doorway that offered shelter.
The festival began slowly with only the (not very good) opening night film to occupy me on Day One. Today I managed four, all in the same complex meaning I exited a film only to immediately get in line for the next one. The day also started off badly, but gradual progress meant SXSW finally kicked into gear for me by the time we were done.
First, I had to get through This Is Your Death. I think it was supposed to be a satire, but it ended up doing a lot of the things it was supposed to be critiquing. Reality TV lies at the heart of only the second directorial feature from acclaimed actor Giancarlo Esposito. After a bloody opening that sees a dating show end in murder and suicide, the heroic host, played by Josh Duhamel, goes rogue and has a mini-Network moment.
He soon sells out of course, this time for a truly horrible show that films people committing suicide in exchange for money that will go to better the lives of loved ones, or any cause they feel passionate about.
Everything about the film felt rushed. There are numerous competing sub-plots involving a recovering drug addict (Sarah Wayne Callies), a working class debt-ridden man (Esposito), an FBI murder investigation, an inter-office relationship and the tension between creating something meaningful and salacious. None of it gets enough time, leaving This Is Your Death relying on the same kind of cheap manipulations it’s meant to be satirising. How it ever made it into the SXSW line-up I’ll never know.
With two bad films behind me, I needed things to start picking up. Thankfully, Small Town Crime marked the turning point. Written and directed by the Nelms brothers, and built around an excellent lead performance from John Hawkes, the film combines murder mystery with just enough dark humor.
I won’t go overboard and say it was more than an enjoyable slice of entertainment, but it certainly was that. When Hawkes’ drunken ex-cop discovers the body of a young woman by the side of the road, he finds himself swept into a case that also offers the chance to get his life back on track. That’s not before dragging his family into some pretty dangerous situations, as things escalate quickly out in the middle of nowhere.
The story itself is standard, and there are moments when it strains too hard for laughs, but generally most marks are hit. It helps that Hawkes is both a top rate dramatic and comic actor, allowing him to blend the two elements seamlessly. An able supporting cast including Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster and Clifton Collins Jr. also do what they can ensure everything holds together.
It was the next film, The Ballad of Lefty Brown that really got things moving though. Back out into the rain I went, and although I was fifth in line I somehow managed to end up in a gap between cover. The kind gentleman behind lent his umbrella, and while waiting we also got to see a dapper Bill Pullman arrive.
He plays the title character, a loyal sidekick, in Jared Moshe’s excellent western. Lefty, a shambling, broken down man far better at following orders than giving them, has spent his life partnering Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda). Their work used to be dangerous, but now Johnson has been elected Senator for Montana and is hanging up his gun. Lefty is to remain behind and look after the ranch. Things don’t exactly pan out and soon Johnson is dead and Lefty is not only searching for the killer, but also accused of the crime himself.
Moshe knows how to capture wild and open countryside, throwing in a number of attention grabbing shots alongside gentler fades. It’s the portrayal of Lefty that really elevates the film though. Moshe, who also wrote the screenplay, toys with hero conventions, choosing a perennial supporting character as his lead. It allows him to tackle genre staples from a different angle. There’s also impressive nuance to a story that could have become a simple good vs evil revenge thriller. It should probably go without saying that Bill Pullman is superb in the lead role, but just in case it doesn’t, he really is superb. The western has been declared close to death many times before. Moshe has once more shown what nonsense that is.
With the first genuinely good film of SXSW under my belt, I decided to settle in for a George Lazenby documentary to end the evening. I must admit I went in purely because On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a favorite of mine. It’s also the Bond film I’ve seen the most I think, mainly because the BBC used to put it on every Easter when I was growing up, for reasons I never understood. Well, Becoming Bond is far more than the low-key entertainment I expected: it’s out and out brilliant.
Director Josh Greenbaum turns the whole thing into a vivid fireside chat. He has Lazenby himself narrate from childhood to walking away from Bond, using witty reconstructions (Jane Seymour is even cast as the agent who made his career) and dizzying graphics to bring it to life. Lazenby is an excellent raconteur, delightfully recounting the time he brought a bag of bats into school, had an attempt at seduction thwarted by diarrhoea, and of course bluffed his way into becoming Sean Connery’s replacement despite never having acted before.
It’s a really funny film, the reconstructions delivered tongue-in-cheek, but there are also moments of poignancy. Lazenby is left fighting back tears when he wonders what could have been with an ex-girlfriend. On Bond, he has no real regrets. While the decision to walk away from a multi-film deal that would have made a him a millionaire has been mocked for decades, he’s clear he made the right choice. He simply didn’t want that life, and if Greenbaum’s docu-drama tells us anything, it’s that you must go your own way.
And with that I tried to go my own way, skipping the Q&A to get home. It then took 45 minutes to find a taxi so I might as well have stayed, but if George Lazenby decrees it, who am I not to listen?
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